Fletcher Discusses Situation In Tripoli

In Libya, protesters are trying to get to Tripoli from the other areas where Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has already lost control. Martin Fletcher, associate editor of the Times of London, is in Tripoli. He speaks to host Michele Norris about the latest from the Libyan capital.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It has been a day of emergency sessions in much of the world, on the problem of Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with counterparts from the European Union, and addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. She said the U.S. is considering all options.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): Nothing is off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to threaten and kill Libyans.

NORRIS: The U.S. is repositioning some naval forces near Libya, and the European Union announced new sanctions, travel bans, and a freeze on the assets of senior Libyan officials.

Sectary Clinton told NPR that the international community is not only targeting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but also his supporters.

Sec. CLINTON: They have to know there's a price to pay. The longer this goes on, the more bloodshed and violence there is, the more likely that they are going to be at risk - be at risk physically, be at risk financially, be at risk of not having a place to go. So this is a message not only directed at him - and who knows how receptive he is to it; but it is a clear, unmistakable message - but also to the remaining support system that he has.

NORRIS: The sectary spoke with NPR's Michele Kelemen, who's traveling with her.

BLOCK: And Clinton said she is concerned about the possible power vacuum that might emerge if and when Gadhafi steps down in Tripoli.

NORRIS: For more on Tripoli, joining us now is Martin Fletcher. He's an associate editor with The Times of London, and he's been reporting from the center of the capital.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARTIN FLETCHER (Associate Editor, The Times): Nice to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, we're hearing conflicting reports about the scale of the conflict between the anti-government protesters, and those who are loyal to Gadhafi.

Government spokesman Musa Ibrahim spoke to foreign journalists, and he denied reports of a civil war there. What are you seeing, and how would you characterize this?

Mr. FLETCHER: In Tripoli itself, there was a protest today by about 400 demonstrators, which was extraordinarily courageous of them because these protests have been fired on in the past. But I have to say that in and around Tripoli, there is still quite substantial support for Gadhafi - from the legions of people who have benefited from the largess of his regime over the past four decades. That said, there's also quite a lot of opposition, and one wonders when that conflict will erupt here, as it has in the east.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about those 400 protesters that waged that demonstration today. Were they confronted - did the government try to crack down on them?

Mr. FLETCHER: What happened was, there was a funeral of a man who was shot on Friday in the protest, and close to a thousand people went to the funeral. Afterwards, about 400 people started marching. The march ended when a militiaman in a vehicle fired his Kalashnikov in the air. And further down the road, there were about a dozen vehicles with heavily armed security forces inside.

NORRIS: Have people fled the city of Tripoli? Is it much like a ghost town now, with many people leaving for other parts of the country?

Mr. FLETCHER: I would say tens - and probably hundreds - of thousands of people have fled the capital. If you go to the airport, there are literally thousands and thousands of people camped outside. All the expat community has gone. A lot of the shops and businesses in the city are now shut up.

A year ago, this was one of the great boom cities of the world. After years of sanctions, it had opened up, given out huge construction contracts. The city, especially along the seafront, bristles with cranes and new high-rises. But those cranes are now standing silent sentinel over grandiose building projects that will probably never be finished.

NORRIS: Is Gadhafi trying, in some ways, to appease his people - not just by sending pro-Gadhafi forces into the street, but by handing out cash?

Mr. FLETCHER: You know, one of the things that started to happen here is food prices are rising sharply, and bread is being rationed, because I think they're finding it difficult now to get supplies into the city.

By way of compensation, Gadhafi has given every Libyan family 500 dinars, which is the equivalent of $400 U.S. And in fact, you see - you know, to an extent - you see people on the street now, they are queuing for bread, or they're queuing outside the banks to get their handout from Gadhafi.

NORRIS: And has that had any effect on the people who are protesting and saying it's time for him to go?

Mr. FLETCHER: None whatsoever, I don't think. A bit like Mubarak and Ben Ali in Tunisia, you know, it's seen as a concession that people will seize, but I don't think it changes anyone's minds at all, no.

NORRIS: Martin Fletcher, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. FLETCHER: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was Martin Fletcher. He's an associate editor with The Times of London. He was speaking to us from Tripoli.

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