Libya's Rebels Battle Their Own Inexperience

The conflict in Libya has entered its sixth week, and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi show no signs of surrender. In the eastern part of the country, rebel fighters are trying to bring order to their undisciplined ranks. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Eric Westervelt about the latest news out of Libya, including eyewitness accounts of the situation in the besieged city of Misrata.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The conflict in Libya has entered its sixth week. Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi show no signs of surrender. In the eastern part of the country, rebel fighters are trying to bring order to their ranks, and this week they were pushed back by pro-Gadhafi forces despite western air strikes.

Rebel fighters are now stalled in stretch of desert outside the oil port town of Brega. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in eastern Libya and joins us on satellite phone. Eric, thanks for being with us.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us about the rebel fighters. Any signs they're getting a little bit better organized and trained?

WESTERVELT: Scott, there are a few signs. I mean, right on the edge of Ajdabiya, really for the first time that I've seen in weeks, there's a sort of a proper checkpoint where rebels are searching cars and asking for IDs, and the same when you get closer to the front. They're sort of trying to stop civilians from coming into the battle zone, folks that might be coming out to sort of rubberneck.

They're also trying to stop fighters who might be underarmed and just untrained and not part of any distinct unit. They're sort of turning them around and saying, you know, unless you're more organized you can't come here.

But it's still very much a work in progress. I mean, that's sort of - the day starts out with them trying to better organized and disciplined, but usually when they come under fire, Scott, then that discipline, you know, often breaks down and people panic and retreat, and we're not seeing any real fundamental change there in terms of their battle tactics.

SIMON: Any new weaponry?

WESTERVELT: You know, we are seeing some new communications gear among some of the rebels on the frontlines. We're seeing some new rockets. It appears that some of the army forces that defected to the revolution early on are now bringing out some more of their bigger firepower, rockets and such. They've had rockets all along, but it appears they're now bringing more to the front and using them more, yes.

SIMON: The papers here in the U.S. and the UK this weekend are using words like stalemate and impasse in talking about the limits of western air power. I'm wondering what that looks like to the rebels you're with. Do they - are they beginning to talk in terms of a stalemate?

WESTERVELT: You know, I spoke to some rebel fighters at a checkpoint, and then also at a hospital in Ajdabiya today where they were bringing in wounded comrades from the frontlines who had been wounded just outside Brega. They said they had been ambushed about five kilometers outside the oil terminal of Brega, and some of them were very badly wounded and were brought in.

And they were a bit dispirited. I mean, the - even though they won't - many of their commanders won't say it, the fact is, you know, it's been a week now since Ajdabiya fell, and they really have been unable to push forward very much at all.

I mean, they've made almost no sustained progress. And these towns, Scott, that they're trying to take are tiny, rural, lightly populated, really now deserted areas and flat open desert terrain. And if they can't these towns, you know, one really wonders how they'll be able to fight their way into these bigger, more densely populated, better protected urban areas such as Serte and Misrata, and of course their big goal, and their big prize, the capital, Tripoli. It just seems a long way off now.

SIMON: The United States announced this week that NATO allies are in charge now of any air strikes, and that the U.S. is going to play a visibly smaller role. And I'm wondering how that affects the rebels.

WESTERVELT: Well, I'm not sure they're following sort of the ins and outs and the minutiae of who's really in command per se. I mean, rebel supporters out here in the towns like Ajdabiya and Benghazi have been waving French and American flags, and say they want and hope for more sustained air strikes on Colonel Gadhafi's forces out here in the east.

You know, they're hoping, Scott, for what amounts to sort of close air support for a ground offensive, but that doesn't appear to be happening now. I mean, the west at first was aggressively taking out Gadhafi's heavy armor which allowed the rebels to push ahead, but as I said, they've been pushed back now, and they're not in populated areas. So civilians per se aren't directly threatened.

So the air strikes near the front have stalled much to the rebels disappointment, and there is some concern among rebels I've talked to, that now with NATO in charge that NATO may be less aggressive in going after some of Gadhafi's units away from populated areas.

SIMON: NPR's Eric Westervelt in eastern Libya. Thanks for being with us, Eric.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Scott

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