In Egypt, Libyan Exiles Say Rebels Need Weapons
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Libya's foreign minister and former spy chief has quit the Libyan government and defected to Britain. Moussa Koussa fled to the U.K. on a flight arranged by British intelligence. But Britain's foreign secretary emphasized he's not being offered immunity from British or international justice.
The defection is a major blow for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Cairo, that for Libyan exiles, the defection was good news after a string of rebel defeats.
DEBORAH AMOS: When Abdel Moneim al-Houni quit his job as Libya's Arab League representative in February, he predicted Gadhafi's regime would fall within days.
Now, he watches the latest rebel setback on a hotel TV in Cairo, while calling his military contacts on the front lines.
Mr. ABDEL MONEIM AL HOUNI (Former Arab League Representative for Libya): They are holding Ras Lanuf, they are hold Sidra, the old ports, they're still in the hands of the revolution.
AMOST: Within hours, even these gains vanished with the rebels in a panicked retreat. But later in the day when one of Gadhafi's closest allies defected to Britain, Houni believed again, that the end of the Gadhafi regime was near.
Mr. HOUNI: (Through Translator) Moussa Koussa is one of the pillars of this regime. He has been with him for 40 years. He was head of the international revolution committee. He was responsible for the assassination of many Libyan opposition figures outside.
AMOS: Libya's former intelligence chief has now switched sides, after traveling to Tunisia to try to make a deal with the rebels on Gadhafi's behalf. He made the same offer at the African Union meeting last week - and Libyan officials insisted throughout the day that Koussa left the country on a diplomatic mission - until the British Foreign Office finally made his defection official. For Abdel al Houni, the departure of the most important member of Gadhafi's inner circle is a blow, but he says rebel fighters need more support.
Mr. HOUNI: (Through Translator) We need, of course, some arms, especially anti-tank weapons and anti-heavy artillery weapons. This will level the playing field.
AMOS: Can you win without that?
Mr. HOUNI: (Through Translator) The Libyan people are determined to fight for freedom and liberty. It's a matter of time and cost. Eventually we will win and we have to win.
AMOS: Houni says rebels are mostly young men with no military experience. He says former Libyan officers are now teaching 30,000 how to fight. American officials confirm that Central Intelligence Agency teams are in Libya to assist in the training, too. They'll also gather intelligence for air strikes against Gadhafi forces.
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AMOS: The Libyan community in Cairo demonstrates daily at Arab League Headquarters to support the no-fly zone. But the longer Gadhafi remains in power, the higher the cost. Egypt has opened its hospitals to serious battlefield cases. Thousands of migrant workers remain stranded on Libya's borders. But for Houni, and his translator, Mourad Hamaima, what is happening inside the Libyan capital concerns them more. Hamaima once worked as a diplomat at the foreign ministry. When he was sent on a mission in February, he quit his post and joined the opposition, but had to leave his family behind.
Mr. MOURAD HAMAIMA (Translator): Personally, I come from Tripoli, and people die every time, every day. There's around 20,000 disappeared young people inside Tripoli, held in prison camps. Tripoli is one big concentration camp now.
AMOS: These claims are impossible to confirm, but Hamaima says his updates come from cell phone contacts in the capital. These former diplomats say Libyans can topple Gadhafi on their own, and then shape a diplomatic country based on institutions instead of one man rule. But they insist that the rebels need international help, now, to level the playing field to beat Gadhafi's well armed military.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.
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