Rebels Retake Key City From Gadhafi Forces

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Rebel forces have re-established control over the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya following a night of NATO airstrikes.

GUY RAZ, host:

We begin the hour in Libya, where sounds of jubilation broke out in the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: A week ago, the rebels lost control of the town. Today, they took it back.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is there and filed this report.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Jubilation in Ajdabiya as Western airstrikes destroyed Colonel Gadhafi's remaining tanks and heavy armor that were dug in along the northwestern gateway to this city of more than 130,000.

Today, rebels and local residents swooped into the area, firing their weapons in celebration and picking through the wreckage. Scattered in the sand were metal tea kettles and food of the government soldiers - sitting next to the mangled and charred remains of tanks and armored troop carriers.

All over, people are celebrating the fall of Ajdabiya. And they're going through the leftovers, destroyed equipment of the Gadhafi military here - amid water bottles and tins of tuna and spent cartridges. They're grabbing old ammunition boxes and anything else they can find.

In Tripoli today, a Gadhafi government spokesman called the pullback a tactical move, not a retreat. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim also lashed out at the West, accusing the coalition of effectively providing close air support for rebel troops, not just enforcing the U.N. resolution. Their aim is to push our armed forces city by city, Kaim said, not to protect civilians.

In Ajdabiya today, some civilians began to return. Chicken vendor Hani Abu Saoud Ali warily headed back to his poultry farm, with 200 birds packed high in cages on the back of his pick-up truck.

(Soundbite of street noises)

WESTERVELT: A chicken vendor is handing half a dozen live chickens to two men with rocket-propelled grenades, giving chickens to the rebels.

At Ajdabiya's hospital, there were no patients - just a few very tired doctors. Near a cinderblock building on the hospital's edge, five bodies of Gadhafi soldiers lay outside.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, says hospital staff have already started removing the dead.

Mr. PETER BOUCKAERT (Emergencies Director, Human Rights Watch): They said that they've already buried most of the bodies in the graveyard outside so - and that there were quite a lot of casualties. So they were just photographing the bodies and burying them right away, without identification.

WESTERVELT: Thirty-year-old Dr. Ramzi Lawami(ph) has been holed up here for 14 days - sleeping, eating, and working in the hospital.

Dr. RAMZI LAWAMI: Now, I can't sleep if not have bomb. Must be make bomb or go sleep.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Lawami says the hospital doesn't really need anything now as donated drugs and medical supplies arrive from Egypt, Qatar and Kuwait. He recalls that a few days ago, Gadhafi fighters came here and demanded that he treat six soldiers for shrapnel and gunshot wounds.

Dr. LAWAMI: And put the weapon here.

WESTERVELT: To you?

Dr. LAWAMI: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: So at gunpoint, they told you to treat their soldiers?

Dr. LAWAMI: Yes - doctor, treat this patient. OK.

WESTERVELT: Then last night around 2 a.m., he says, rebels came to the hospital and told him the western gate had been liberated.

While the anti-Gadhafi forces are celebrating the fall of Ajdabiya today, they say the situation for fellow rebels in the western city of Misrata is grim. Pitched battles and government shelling continued today, witnesses say, and there's almost no water or electricity.

Simon Brooks, with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, says the Gadhafi regime continues to block access to Misrata, in violation of the laws of armed conflict.

Mr. SIMON BROOKS (International Committee for the Red Cross): You know, that access needs to happen. And it needs to happen today. We are told that there aren't these needs. We don't find that credible. And it's inconsistent with the facts. We have the right to say we have a role here, and we wish to act.

WESTERVELT: In Ajdabiya, soon there's more gunfire, and some explosions are heard. It's not celebratory mortar fire. Twenty-four-year-old rebel fighter Salah Maloum says small clashes continue.

Mr. SALAH MALOUM: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: You really don't know where Gadhafi snipers are hitting you from, he says. They shoot and run away. We even found some women snipers on a rooftop near the hospital just this morning.

Some rebel forces here say civilians are foolish for rushing back into the city so soo - that it's not fully secure. But rebels are doing very little to stop them from coming.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ajdabiya.

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