In Libya, Gadhafi's Forces Hold Rebels Back
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Western air strikes have devastated Gadhafi's anti-aircraft systems and destroyed at least one armored column in eastern Libya. But the situation on the ground remains essentially unchanged. The rebels have regained control of their self-styled capital, Benghazi, but their efforts to expand westward have been thwarted by Gadhafi's forces.
We're now going to hear from two of our correspondents inside Libya. First, to NPR's Eric Westervelt, who's in Benghazi. Eric, you've been down to the front lines south of Benghazi, how would you assess the situation there?
ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Robert, the rebels out there have not been able to take advantage, really, at all of the big help from Western air strikes. Today, they were actually pushed back a little by pro-Gadhafi forces. There was fighting around the port area of Zuwaytinah, a strategic oil port just north of Ajdabiya. So they've actually lost ground in the last 24 hours.
Colonel Gadhafi's army still has tanks and artillery and heavy armor sort of entrenched in the town of Ajdabiya and they're using it to great effect against this really lightly armed and disorganized force. The rebels continue to call for patience and say, give us time, we're working to get our act together.
But they really have no effective communication system still, no coherent strategy, no effective leadership. They're not trained soldiers, and they're not effective fighters and they're getting beat.
SIEGEL: OK. That's Eric Westervelt, who is in Benghazi. Hang on the line, Eric, we're going to go to the capital, Tripoli, where NPR's David Greene is - David, what's the Libyan government saying about the situation on the ground?
DAVID GREENE: You know, Robert, it's interesting to hear Eric talk about the rebels as sort of a loosely held together group with little communications because you listen to the Libyan government and they're painting these rebels as, you know, real warriors over the last few days, especially in the east where Eric is. The Libyan government has said they're really at a disadvantage because the rebels, they have planes, they have tanks.
And the Libyan government says that the United States, Britain, have been giving the rebels air cover and that the government is in a position where if they fight back, they'll be called murderers by the rest of the world. And so they're playing the victim card a little bit. I should, Robert, mention one other place and that's Misrata, which is a western city that - it's one of the few places the rebels have held on to in the west.
The government paints a different picture, you know, they've been accused of really going after civilians. Some of the reports from Misrata have been pretty horrific, government snipers and civilians being shot at. The government says that they are going after Islamist extremists who are holed up with civilians in that city.
It's hard to know the truth because international aid groups, journalists have effectively been locked out of that city by the government and so the government's able to really tell the story the way it wants to.
SIEGEL: That's David Greene in Tripoli. And now back to Eric Westervelt in Benghazi. Eric, the rebel leadership today announced the appointment of a prime minister. His name is Mahmoud Jibril. What do you know about him? What can you tell us about his appointment?
WESTERVELT: Well, Robert, he's an American-educated former professor who once headed Libya's economic development board. And he's already director of the rebels' crisis committee, which covers military and foreign affairs as well. He was appointed prime minister today, not elected.
You know, but provisional leaders you talk to here say this was necessary to try to get greater recognition from the international community to show that we're organized. And they're certainly better organized as a government than they are as a fighting force and to try to set the stage, they say, for a transition to democracy and to show that there's an alternative to the Gadhafi regime that's starting to get organized.
SIEGEL: I'd just like to hear from both of you and we'll start with David Greene in Tripoli and then Eric Westervelt in Benghazi. What is life like in these cities now? Are people buying things and going to work or is everything stopped now that the country is in an effective state of war. David?
GREENE: You know, Robert, we actually got our first look at parts of the city we haven't seen before. The government took us on a bus trip today suggesting they were going to show us places where there were civilian casualties from these air strikes. They failed. They didn't end up taking us anywhere. They turned around and took us back to the hotel.
But it gave us a chance to take in some of the scenes of the city. And a lot of shops are closed. A lot of the roads were fairly empty and so you are getting a sense that people are fearful right now. But, really, the routine is at night. After sundown, it's when the air strikes have come every single night the last four nights and I think people are ready for that. When darkness comes, they're ready for the noise to come.
SIEGEL: And, Eric, what's it like in Benghazi?
WESTERVELT: Very few shops are open. People are tense and nervous. We hear nightly clashes, gunfire and explosions and sometimes firefights in the middle of the night. The city is not back to normal. Everyone's focused on the fight down the road, how they can support it, either, you know, strategically or physically by going out to the front. And things certainly are not back to normal here.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you and take care.
WESTERVELT: Thank you, Robert.
GREENE: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Benghazi, Libya, and David Greene in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
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