Rebels Claim They've Retaken Gadhafi's Hometown

Rebel fighters in Libya are making their way west after taking back several cities along the coast toward the capital Tripoli. And they've taken key oil terminals along the coast. After a week of NATO air strikes, the rebels are claiming success in Sirte, which is Moammar Gaddafi's hometown.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Obama addresses the nation tonight on Libya. He'll be speaking about the military operation there from the National Defense University in Washington, and it appears he'll have positive news to report.

MONTAGNE: Rebel fighters are making their way west after taking back cities along the coast towards Tripoli, and they've taken key oil terminals as well. After NATO airstrikes on Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, rebels are now claiming success there.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is on the road in eastern Libya and joins us now to talk about all of this.

And Eric, there are conflicting reports about whether the rebels really have taken Sirte. What do you know?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Renee, I'm in the oil port of Brega, just outside of it, and rebels here are telling us that actually the front line is now about 10 kilometers outside of Sirte, so the fighting is between the small town of Bin Jawad and Sirte, according to these fighters we're talking to.

I will say at about 3:30 in the morning in Benghazi, the city erupted for two hours with celebratory fire and beeping and people took to the streets yelling; they were celebrating what they thought was the fall of Sirte to rebel forces. But it looks like that's still in flux, that they have not yet secured that city, which is Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, that there still is fighting for that key area.

MONTAGNE: And presumably the fighting could be very hard there in Sirte, given that it's a stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi. But what are reports about what is happening with his troops?

WESTERVELT: Well, according to rebels we've talked to, they are in full retreat to Sirte. And I just rode this morning, Renee, from Benghazi to outside Brega. I passed dozens of destroyed tanks, pieces of artillery, troop carriers and trucks; really the highway is littered with his destroyed heavy armor. The Allied western air campaign has destroyed a tremendous amount of his heavy equipment.

Rebels here say that troops that were left, survived, got into civilian cars and fled towards Sirte. Here outside Brega, I'm seeing green uniforms strung along the ground; there are artillery crates, ammunition. It appears they left in an absolute hurry. Rebels right now are loading up artillery and ammunition rounds onto a big truck that they say the Gadhafi forces just left behind in haste.

MONTAGNE: Is there any sign, though, that the rebels themselves are becoming more organized as they push toward the west?

WESTERVELT: You know, I am seeing a little more organization in terms of getting food, water and ammunition and key supplies needed along this main coastal road towards the troops; you're seeing a little more organization there. But in terms of actually the foot soldiers, these young men with AK-47s and occasionally with a rocket-propelled grenade, you're not seeing any really more discipline or organization or coherence. They still don't have a lot of communication among themselves.

When we were talking to rebels today about what's going on on the road up ahead, and we said how do you know that, and they said well, you know, the phones are down, we're just hearing it when rebels come back this way. So it's often secondhand; it's not clear communication, and they haven't been able to improve that at all.

MONTAGNE: And what has been the scene of the towns that you have passed through today? Now, Eric, you're going from eastern Libya toward the west, right, which is towards Tripoli.

WESTERVELT: Renee, what I've seen today is just destroyed cars and tanks and heavy equipment. These technicals, which are pickup trucks loaded with machine guns, they're destroyed on the side of the road. Some of these towns are virtually abandoned, deserted. The shops are still closed. There are very few people on the street. There's obvious signs of fighting and destruction along the main roads, bullet holes everywhere. Here where I am right now at this Brega terminal, there's destroyed vehicles all around me. We're told that the port, the oil facility, is operating, but it looks just total destruction all around you, garbage and burned cars and destroyed houses here right along the highway. And I saw a lot of that coming up today, just destroyed vehicles and abandoned small towns.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt speaking to us outside the port city of Brega, along the coast of Libya.

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