As Rebels Advance On Tripoli, Residents Stock Up

Rebels in eastern Libya are moving west toward the capital Tripoli. Shops there are closed, and residents are forced to stock up on food and gas when they can find it. The bombings by coalition airplanes also started up again in the capital.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The rebels in eastern Libya are moving quickly west towards the capital. In an effort to repel them, Libyan troops are racing towards the town of Sirte, which is Moammar Gadhafi's hometown. The bombings by coalition airplanes have started up again. And in Tripoli, shops are closed, and residents are stocking up on food and gas when they can find it. Almost no one in the capital wants to talk to Western journalists, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of bomb blasts)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: After several days of quiet, Tripoli - the increasingly isolated capital - came under attack again. A series of at least nine blasts rumbled through this city of two million, followed by ineffectual anti-aircraft gunfire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The rebel advance is gaining momentum, with reports that Gadhafi's stronghold of Sirte has, at least partially, been abandoned by his forces after a NATO bombing campaign there last night. Over the years, Gadhafi has lavished money on his hometown and reinforced it with his elite troops. It was seen as impregnable.

But overnight, civilians - some with bundles of their belongings strapped to their cars - could be seen fleeing the city to the west.

There were also NATO strikes against the besieged, rebel-held city of Misrata and the town of Sebha in the south.

At a press conference late last night in Tripoli, the normally glib spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, was at a loss to explain what's happening.

Mr. MOUSSA IBRAHIM (Libyan Government Spokesman): The air bombardment is not justified. It's attacking our stationary armies. It's killing our kids in the army who are not doing anything. They are just sitting in their vehicles. Some of them actually were attacked as they were withdrawing. They were moving clearly - I mean, even to an airplane - clearly moving westbound, and they were attacked.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Contradicting himself, he also claimed, though, that Gadhafi's troops were, quote, "still strong on the ground" - but where, exactly, he wouldn't say.

There seems to be an increasing sense of disconnect between the capital and what is happening in the east. In the latest propaganda effort gone awry, the government here sent a group of Western journalists from Tripoli to Sirte to show that the government was still in control there. The reporters were caught in the aerial bombardment when they arrived and were told that there was no safe place for them to stay.

(Soundbite of an crowd chatter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And on the streets of the capital, tensions are boiling over. At one gas station, armed state security guards and residents screamed at one another: What do you mean there's no government, no law, said one of the guards to an irate young man who was trying to fill up his tank. The man was pushed away and refused service at the pump.

Many gas stations are closed, and at others, there are long lines.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken) Three hours. (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some of the residents were pushing their cars after waiting for hours in order not to waste fuel. Others carried gerry cans on foot, leaving their vehicles at home. Many shops are shuttered here, and people are desperately stocking up on bread and other basic staples.

At the gas station, some blamed NATO and the embargo for the situation.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The coalition bombing us are the ones who are shutting off the gas, this man says. I'm worried that one day, even water won't even arrive.

But one man, whose name we are withholding for his safety, told us he blames the government for what's happening here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think the revolutionaries have legitimate demands, he says, but many mistakes have been made. You can't only blame the leader Gadhafi alone. The people under him gave the orders to shoot into the protestors, he says. And when blood is spilled, it becomes a very difficult problem to solve.

Many others, though, were simply too afraid to say anything at all to Western journalists, accompanied by government minders. Many people here have been detained and abused for speaking to the foreign media.

Unidentified Man #4: What did you see...

Unidentified Man #5: I cannot talk.

Unidentified Man #4: But did you hear about the...

Unidentified Man #5: I cannot talk. If you want to save me, so I cannot talk with the TV or something like that. You know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why?

Unidentified Man #5: You know why. I cannot say nothing. You know? There is a lot of snitch here. You know? So I cannot talk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For now, Gadhafi's rule of fear has Tripoli still in its grip.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tripoli.

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