Gadhafi's Oil Minister Announces He Defected

Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi suffered a major diplomatic blow when his oil minister announced his defection on Wednesday. But the departure apparently hasn't weakened Gadhafi's resolve to hold onto power.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Libyan ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, suffered a major diplomatic blow yesterday when his oil minister announced he was defecting. But the departure apparently has not weekend Gadhafi's resolve to hold onto power.

We're joined, now, by NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who arrived in the Libyan capital of Tripoli last night.

Hello.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, Soraya, what is your sense of the city?

NELSON: Well, it seems amazingly abandoned to me. That's the best way to describe it. You really don't see many cars on the highway 'cause there's obviously a gas shortage at the moment. You don't see many people on the streets. A lot of the stores that we passed by were shuttered, and not because it was evening either. I mean normally this is a part of the world where things sort of spring into action in the evening, if you will. So it's sort of - it seemed very glum to me, frankly, and just much quieter.

What's interesting, of course, is that all the posters and billboards in town featuring Mr. Gadhafi are still up everywhere. But again, there's just this sort of sense of abandonment.

MONTAGNE: And when it comes to the Gadhafi government, has it reacted yet to the defection yet of Gadhafi's oil minister?

NELSON: They have not said a word about this. And it's interesting because up until last week, they said that Shokri Ghanem was going to be representing them at the OPEC meeting in Vienna next week. So this must definitely come as a blow to them. They have been saying more recently that he was on a business trip, so we'll have to wait and see if they say anything else - but definitely a problem for his government.

MONTAGNE: Well, this is just the latest in a string of high-level defections. Bring us up-to-date on who has gone over to the rebel side.

NELSON: Well, we've had reports that eight senior Libyan army officers going over, including five generals and they were presented to reporters in Rome earlier in the week. And also another 13 servicemen who were from this area, including the colonel and four commanders, fled to neighboring Tunisia.

Now, it's important to note that we came from that border yesterday and there are checkpoints every few minutes, as we were driving along, where every car is thoroughly searched and people's IDs are checked. So there's a lot attention obviously over this sort of phenomenon that's been going on, with people leaving.

MONTAGNE: Well, now this oil minister - not only is he very high up - but obviously oil is of huge significance to Libya. What's the situation with oil production now?

NELSON: Well, it used to be that Libya's oil and gas accounted for 95 percent of Libya's export income and 80 percent of the government revenue. And right now, according to the former oil minister has told people, the production has pretty much ground to a halt. Certainly what we can see, as observers coming in, is people who have parked their cars - not just lining up at the gas stations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: But they've literally abandoned them there waiting for gas stations to open up. I mean you see this at virtually every gas station. And a lot of people have turned to buying what gas they can get from the black market, which cost about two or $3 per gallon. That may not seem like a lot to Americans, but certainly compared to the few cents per gallon that people use to pay here, this is a tremendous increase.

So this accounts for why you don't see many cars on the highway, no doubt, or on the streets around here.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, let's move to the rebel capital of Benghazi, which has been calm in recent days held by the rebels pretty thoroughly. There has been a bombing though.

NELSON: Yes, indeed. There was an explosion in front of a hotel that's used by journalists, as well as rebel officials and foreign diplomats. What apparently happened, according to spokesmen in Benghazi, is that somebody rolled either a grenade or some sort of explosive underneath the car. It went off. It ended up lighting two other cars on fire. And so you had quite a bit of fire damage and that sort of thing going on outside of this hotel.

But there were no casualties reported.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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