From Chaos To Quiet, Libya In The Balance

Reports from Tripoli say the streets are quiet this morning, a stark contrast to the chaos that broke out on downtown streets as pro-regime militiamen opened fire on opponents of Moammar Gadhafi. Host Scott Simon gets the latest on the scene in Libya from NPR's Peter Kenyon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The streets of Tripoli are reportedly quiet today after militiamen who support Moammar Gadhafi's regime opened fire on protesters yesterday in the Libyan capital. This scene from Tripoli was posted on the Internet by a Libyan youth movement:

(Soundbite of yelling and gunfire)

SIMON: There were reports of continued fighting overnight in the cities of Misurata and Zawiya, with forces supporting Gadhafi battling civilians and army units who have joined the opposition. There are also chaotic scenes as thousands of foreigners are trying to flee Libya by air and sea. In Washington, D.C. the Obama administration has ordered sanctions against Gadhafi and his family.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is monitoring the situation from Cairo. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Much of eastern Libya has apparently been taken by opposition forces. What is the latest you can hear from Tripoli and other key cities that are further west?

KENYON: Well, we have been able to reach some people in Tripoli and the surrounding suburbs by phone today. The lines are quite bad and sketchy. But what we are hearing is that after yesterday's protest, which was met with a violent response, that much of the capital, at least the parts these people know about, is quiet.

We're also getting reports from further west that anti-government forces would like to move east toward Tripoli but that many key roads have been damaged or destroyed by militiamen loyal to the government. Now, also back in Tripoli and around there, pro-government forces overnight attacked an airbase at Misurata. That's a town on the coast west of Tripoli before you reach Sirte, which is Gadhafi's hometown.

That base had been taken over by anti-regime army units and civilians. And there are also reports in the other direction of fighting in Zawiya, which lies to the west of the capital. Meanwhile, as you mentioned, further east beyond Sirte, much of the country is now under control of anti-government forces.

SIMON: Peter, Libyan government yesterday invited a number of foreign journalists to witness scenes of quiet. And let me get your assessment as to if their version of the situation bears any relationship to what we're hearing from witnesses.

KENYON: Well, it's hard to see how at this point, Scott, the defiant line from the Gadhafi family has been a stark contrast, to say the least, to the reports we're getting both from journalists on the ground and from the witnesses we've been in touch with.

Yesterday, Gadhafi's son, Saif, told reporters that apart from those two cities of Misurata and Zawiya, the situation he says is under control. Here is some of what he had to say through a translator.

Mr. SAIF GADHAFI: (Through Translator) What you have heard in Libya was just a big joke, very big joke. And here in Libya we are laughing about those reports about hundreds and thousands of casualties.

KENYON: Now, Scott, what he also said in addition to that was people asked him about gunfire in the capital. He said, oh, it was just fireworks. He also said that the Gadhafis' plan to live and die in Libya, another signal that their defiance to the international community continues.

SIMON: Efforts to evacuate foreigners have been delayed by permissions and bad weather. How's that going now?

KENYON: There are more people getting out now. A ferry containing some 300 Americans and other foreigners has arrived in Malta. That was after three days of delay, largely due to a storm sweeping across the Mediterranean. Now, beyond that you've got, according to the U.N., some 37,000 people, presumably a mix of Libyans and foreigners who have fled the country over land arriving at Tunisia and Egypt.

SIMON: Peter, the machinery of international diplomacy seems to be gearing up to mobilize against the Libyan regime. Realistically, what impact would that have?

KENYON: Well, the family's assets have been frozen - at least the ones that can be reached by the U.S. and Switzerland. There are other unilateral U.S. sanctions and travel bans in place against key officials. The United Nations Security Council has been asked to act urgently on international sanctions as well.

But I have to say it's not really clear how reachable Libya is when it comes to things like sanctions. In recent years, Libya has been expanding its trade ties in a number of directions but the Gadhafi family is quite used to being isolated and shunned. And their defiant tones suggest that economic pressure may not have much effect.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Cairo. Thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

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