Explosion Hits In Libya Rebel Stronghold

People rushed to the scene of that massive explosion today — in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi — headquarters of the rebel movement intent on overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi. Details are still coming in and there is no confirmed cause of the blast yet. But it is known there are many dead and wounded — with body parts strewn around the former Libyan army base where the explosion occurred. NPR's Peter Kenyon speaks with host Melissa Block.

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(Soundbite of ambulance siren)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Ambulances and people rushed to the scene of the massive explosion we mentioned in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi today. It's the headquarters of the Libyan rebel movement. The explosion occurred at a former army base. Details are still coming in, and so far, there's no confirmed cause. But it is known there are many dead and wounded, and it is a grisly scene.

For more, we're joined by NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is in Benghazi.

Peter, you went to this army base where the explosion happened today. What did you see?

PETER KENYON: Well, Melissa, it was a scene of dramatic devastation. Just the sheer size of the blast was shocking.

It was well after sunset when we arrived. And as we approached, we could see four large fires blazing orange against the night sky, and white smoke billowing that later turned to black smoke. I don't know what exactly was burning.

Nearby, residents had swarmed over the base. They were climbing over the concrete that was all that was left of some of the buildings. Cars had been tossed many yards away, and they lay crumpled off to the side.

A string of ambulances came in. Gurney after gurney was loaded with wounded, dead, sometimes just body parts.

We did go to one of the hospitals after that. Obviously, at least dozens, probably scores wounded. And the death count is still being tallied. We got a few numbers, but they said it's certain to rise.

BLOCK: What were people there saying, Peter, about what they think caused the explosion?

KENYON: There were a number of theories - all of them having to do with either bombs placed around the ordinance that was already on the base, or an airstrike. Those seemed to be the two most popular. We don't know and you cannot rule out the possibility of some kind of accidental explosion yet. We're waiting for further information.

I can tell you that from what I saw, the sheer range of the devastation spoke to a very, very large blast - kind of hard to imagine a single blast causing that based on what we've been hearing about what was in that former military base. I'm not an expert in explosions, obviously, so we're going to have to wait for confirmation.

Several of the people we talked to were leaning towards an airstrike. One soldier from a nearby base said he heard planes in the air just after the blast. We also spoke with a Colonel Zawati(ph), who was convinced that it was an airstrike, and he blamed pro-Gadhafi forces.

BLOCK: How important an asset was the base to the anti-government forces based there in Benghazi?

KENYON: Well, whatever the cause, you have to say this took out a pretty large stock of weapons and ammunition. One soldier called it the largest munitions dump in the eastern part of Libya. I can't confirm that, but there's no doubt it was a large stockpile.

We did, however, hear a certain amount of bravado from soldiers. One young man laying in the hospital said we have enough ammunition to last for years even without this base.

BLOCK: It sounds like it didn't seem to diminish the passion by which these rebels are fighting the Gadhafi government then.

KENYON: No. Not at all. If this was an attack and if the intent was to intimidate the rebels, certainly, it seems to have had the opposite effect. The fire now to topple the regime is greater than ever here.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Benghazi in eastern Libya.

Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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