Libyan Officials Say They're Still In Control
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
In Libya, pressure is mounting on the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. NATO is bombing, rebels are attacking from east and west, and there are growing gas and food shortages. But Libyan officials insist they are still firmly in charge of their territory. To try to prove it, they organized three trips today for separate groups of foreign journalists to the east, west and south of Tripoli. The journalists were accompanied by government minders who strictly control their movements.
And NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was on one of those trips. She's now back in Tripoli.
Soraya, where did you go today?
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, we headed east. We went to a coastal town called Al Khums, about an hour's drive from the front, where the battle is raging over Misrata, which is to the west of Al Khums. And we had a police car, motorcycle escorting our minibus through the checkpoints and also to clear traffic, but there really wasn't any traffic to clear because most of the cars that we saw were lined up for miles along the shoulders. And they were hoping to get gas from the few gas stations that are still open.
BLOCK: Now, given the fact that you were traveling with minders on this trip, did you have the chance to talk with anybody when you got there?
NELSON: It was difficult. We did talk to some people, but we were surrounded by the minders. They, in fact, had to translate for us, and there was even one who was filming us as we were talking to people. So I tried sticking to one minder who I've gotten to know, and I know from past experience, he would be - he would more or less translate what people had to say. But the people we approached to interview were definitely intimidated and reluctant to talk.
BLOCK: And what did they say?
NELSON: Well, I talked to a government worker and a tour guide and three shopkeepers, and all of them told me that there hadn't been any fighting in Al Khums, and they also shared my observation that NATO bombings have tapered off in the last week. They talked about the hardships that they were facing. I mean, even though things were quieting down in their opinion, they said that the crisis, as they call this war, is making it really hard for them because they can't get gasoline. They have witnessed the doubling or tripling of price of key food items, like milk.
And it's important to note that this is a tourist town in the outskirts of the famous Roman ruins called Leptis Magna, and there haven't been any tourists there, though, since January. Our minders took us to see those ruins as well.
BLOCK: And, Soraya, I gather that rebel sources have accused Gadhafi forces of hiding arms in that ancient city that you went to today. Were you able to figure out whether that was true or not?
NELSON: Well, our tour guide, whose name was Khali(ph), he was adamant that nothing was hidden there. We didn't tour the entire site. It's very, very large and sprawling. I mean, we were only there for an hour. So we did not see any evidence of it, but we can't know for sure.
BLOCK: Right. Hard to prove a negative.
BLOCK: Well, Soraya, if the goal of this trip that they took you on was to convince you that that the Libyans are still firmly in control of this territory, what was your impression at the end of the day?
NELSON: Well, there wasn't any evidence of recent fighting. For example, I didn't see any bullet holes in walls or blackened buildings or anything like that. And the checkpoints weren't tense, unlike the ones to the west where rebels had attacked last week, attempted to cut off the coastal roads to Tunisia.
But there's little doubt that the people I talked to in Al Khums, even with the minders' presence, expressed a lot of worry about their future. They really want this bombing to stop. They say they'd like to see some sort of diplomatic resolution to this crisis, and they want life to go back to normal.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talking with me from Tripoli.
Soraya, thanks very much.
NELSON: You're welcome.
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