Aid Ships Stop Risky Journey To Libya's Rebel Capital

Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi planted mines in the harbor several days ago. A NATO ship is trying to find and destroy the mines, but it is a dangerous operation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get an update now from Libya, specifically on the rebel-held city of Misrata. This is a city that earlier today we heard was completely cut off. The only source of supplies and ammunition has been by sea and the sea route into the port of Misrata was blocked earlier today.

We heard from our correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Now we're going back to Lourdes once again in the rebel-held city of Benghazi. She's monitoring the situation in Misrata. What's happening now, Lourdes?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what we know is that the International Organization for Migration was able to take their ship into the port today. They were let in by a tugboat, and the complication has been for a great many days on that the harbor has been mined and the concern was that one of the mines was unanchored. It was essentially a floating mine traveling around and they were trying to track it so that it wouldn't hit the ships coming in. And that's what basically helped out aid coming in and out of Misrata.

And so today the International Organization for Migration was able to get its ship in and it is evacuating some one thousand African migrants, also taking in several tons of food, medical supplies and water to that besieged city. Nothing has been coming in or out of there for at least three days and so the situation rebels had told us was fairly desperate. They were running out of things like baby formula, and so this is a much needed humanitarian mission that is now on its way.

INSKEEP: So, some supplies are getting in today and some non-Libyan workers are getting out. Does that mean that the sea route is now clear?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's unclear if the sea route is clear or not. Certainly the issue of the mines is still a present one, we're being told, and that is going to slow things down. But the fact that such a large ship -because this ferry that goes in and out of Misrata for the IOM is a fairly large vessel - has been able to get into the port. We'll of course want to believe that other ships will be able to get in and out of the port. So, that is obviously going to be welcome news to the rebels.

But while this is happening I can tell you that the port is being shelled. We have had reports of five people being killed in the port today while this mission is ongoing. So, on the one hand you have the harbor being mined, and on the other hand Gadhafi forces shelling the port, which is such an important avenue in and out of Misrata.

INSKEEP: If I'm not mistaken, the front lines are not far from the port of Misrata, right? So the rebels have to hold on to prevent being completely cut off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what's been happening, actually, is that at this point Gadhafi's forces have a fairly good idea where the port is. They've been shelling it for many, many weeks now. And so, when they know that a ship is coming in, they tend to target it. And they don't have to be very close in order to do that. They're using rockets and they're using mortars.

And so it tends to happen every single time one of these large ships comes in to try and dissuade, obviously, people from getting into Misrata. They really want to choke the rebels off. And the way that they see - the only way that they can really do that is by cutting off the port.

There has been a very intense battle going on to the airport. The rebels want to capture the airport so they'll have another avenue to get supplies in, but so far they haven't been able to take it. That is still controlled by Gadhafi's forces.

INSKEEP: So there is ammunition available on the ground in Misrata.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There has been ammunition available on the ground. I mean, for the past three day nothing has been getting in through the port, but they have been able to hold on, they still have enough to have gotten them through those three days. And they believe if more ships can come in, then they will be resupplied. But, you know, it's a very ropey, you know, situation there. I mean, this is a city that is basically encircled. The only avenue in and out is this port. And ships have been coming in, but it's not like there're massive shipments coming in, dozens of boats every day. It's been very reedy. It's a long voyage. It's very fraught. It's not like they're extremely well equipped.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, monitoring the situation in Misrata; Rebel-held city in Libya. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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