Rebels In Eastern Libya Boosted By No-Fly Zone

The U.S. and its allies have carried out a second night of air strikes in Libya, while Moammar Gadhafi vowed to fight a "long war." A new sense of optimism has swept over eastern Libya — an area still held by rebel forces. Those rebels were on the verge of being routed by government troops before a U.N. vote last week made Libyan air space a no-fly zone.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Libya, allied forces launched a second night of airstrikes, while Moammar Gadhafi vowed that he would fight, quote, "a long war." And with those strikes, a new sense of optimism has swept over eastern Libya, an area held by rebel forces. Those rebels were on the verge of being routed by government troops before a U.N. vote last week that made Libyan air space a no-fly zone.

Joining us in the eastern city of Tobruk is NPR's Eric Westervelt.

And Eric, the opposition was pretty happy when strikes began. What has been the reaction in that city to the second night of air and missile strikes?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Renee, rebels throughout this opposition-controlled eastern part of the country were given a big boost by the Western intervention. They're heartened by the fact that not only were Gadhafi's air defense sites and communications areas targeted, but that Western planes also attacked tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers on the highway outside Benghazi. Those airstrikes dealt a pretty strong blow to Colonel Gadhafi's lead ground forces that had been attacking the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

MONTAGNE: And are the opposition forces doing anything militarily yet to try to take advantage of this western help?

WESTERVELT: Not yet. And I think really the big question is, is in coming days can the opposition forces get their act together, Renee, enough to take advantage of this support? They're disorganized. They're ill-equipped.

I mean, Colonel Gadhafi's air force has been effectively grounded. And some of his units, as I said, near Benghazi have been hit pretty hard. But the rebels are not at all a disciplined fighting force. They're untrained young men with no coherent communication or command structure.

So can the rebels do anything now to capitalize? And I put that question to rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani here. And he insisted rebels were using this time to try to reorganize militarily. Here's what he had to say.

Mr. MUSTAFA GHERIANI (Libyan Rebel Spokesman): Trying to regroup those young men. Trying to take the operation and make it more professional and have some planning to it. The learning curve has been quite steep. Emotions was the main driving force in this case. Now that it's been awhile, I think they've been seasoned, I think we can manage it right now. I think that this operation can be managed.

WESTERVELT: But there's lots of skepticism here, Renee, that the rebels can manage it. And if they can't, there is a fear, a real fear, that Libya could be headed into a prolonged stalemate or a divided country where the opposition controls the east hear and Gadhafi's regime still controls much of the western part.

MONTAGNE: Although one thing, the Gadhafi government announced last night yet another ceasefire. Anyone where you are taking that announcement seriously?

WESTERVELT: No. No one's taking it seriously. His regime continues to sort of fluctuate wildly between defiant bellicose talk and then these rhetorical gestures talking about a ceasefire. I mean, one of his commanders came out and announced yet another ceasefire, and then an hour later Gadhafi called in to state TV and talked tough and promised a long war and said he's opening the ammo dumps to arm all of his supporters.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking to NPR's Eric Westervelt in the Libyan city of Tobruk.

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