In Libya, Rebels Driven Back

While world leaders met in London Tuesday to discuss Libya, on the ground in North Africa, the see-saw battle for control of key oil towns continued. On Monday, rebel forces gained substantial ground along the Mediterranean coast, thanks in large part to Western air and missile attacks on troops loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi. But on Tuesday, the loyalists fought back, forcing the rebel fighters to make a hasty retreat along the coast road

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The fight for the future of Libya continued on two fronts today. In London, world leaders met to discuss next steps for the intervention there. And on the ground in eastern Libya, rebels fought government forces for control of key oil towns.

Yesterday, rebel fighters gained substantial ground along the Mediterranean coast, thanks in large part to Western strikes on troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

But NPR's Eric Westervelt reports that today, the loyalists fought back, forcing the rebels to make a hasty retreat along the coastal road.

ERIC WESTERVELT: For two days, the makeshift anti-Gadhafi forces made steady progress in retaking the city of Ajdabiya and again rushed westwards to recapture the important oil processing centers of Brega and Ras Lanuf. Western air attacks and cruise missile strikes on Colonel Gadhafi's heavy armor and air force made those gains possible.

But rebels and witnesses say their progress again stalled last night and today, as Gadhafi troops pushed back using sustained mortar and Grad rocket fire. Now, rebel fighters are pulling back from the town of Bin Jawad, and there were reports of Gadhafi artillery fire on nearby Ras Lanuf.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WESTERVELT: Twenty-five-year-old Bashir al-Maghrebi returned to Ras Lanuf to find that a Gadhafi artillery round had smashed into his home during the recent fighting. There's now a hole the size of a washing machine in the second floor back wall. The windows are all smashed out and a spider web of cracks has splintered what remains of his other walls.

Mr. BASHIR AL-MAGHREBI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The Gadhafi army says it's coming to protect civilian areas, but he's destroying every area, he says, adding, I'm numb, no more feelings. He's destroyed our feelings.

Maghrebi slams Gadhafi for squandering Libya's oil wealth during his 42-year dictatorship.

Mr. AL-MAGHREBI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: We're the richest country and the poorest people, he says.

Given the renewed fighting nearby, Maghrebi says he's heading back to a makeshift camp in the desert with his family, where there are no amenities. But at least it's safe.

Meanwhile, rebel forces in Benghazi are trying to get much needed medical supplies and ammunition to opposition fighters in the besieged city of Misrata in western Libya.

Captain ALI SPAK (Commander, Port of Benghazi): Misrata, Misrata, Misrata, Misrata.

WESTERVELT: Benghazi Port Captain Ali Spak listens to a radio call from Misrata's port. He's helping organize the semi-regular shipments there. The latest convoy of three boats arrived in Misrata over the weekend, and he says it immediately took heavy fire from Gadhafi artillery units, which seemed to know they were coming.

Capt. SPAK: They were aiming at these boats because they knew their arrival time. They knew that what they were carrying, medicines and supply and help for Misrata's people, so they just shoot everywhere in the port area. Two fishing boats sank, one Ukrainian ship was slightly damaged, the silos of the grains was damaged.

WESTERVELT: No one was killed, Captain Ali says, and the supplies reached opposition supporters. But he says it's hardly enough. Misrata remains a battle zone. And it's not at all clear how the outgunned and deeply disorganized rebel force can move forward on their own and fulfill their pledge to take the cities of Sirte, Misrata and Tripoli.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, in eastern Libya.

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