Libya's Government Minders: Everything Is Normal

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In Libya, government forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi have been fighting rebels for months. Government officials, however, do everything possible to deny there is a war on and pretend that everything is just fine across the country.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Libya's war is a battle of bombs but also of words. The Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is fighting to show he's still in charge despite NATO airstrikes, rebel attacks and a pressing gas shortage. And we'll get a glimpse of that side of the conflict this morning.

Every day Libyan officials argue with foreign journalists over their portrayal of the story. And at the same time, Libyan government minders try to steer those reporters to tell a different story. Just yesterday, for example, they sent three busloads of reporters into the countryside - one to the east, one west, and another south of the capital, Tripoli, to, quote, prove that rebels are not getting closer.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went on one of those carefully monitored trips.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This bus, packed with TV crews and newspaper and radio reporters, heads east to a tourist town located about an hour from the front, outside of the besieged coastal town of Misrata. The tourist town is called Khums. A police escort accompanies the group most of the way.

(Soundbite of chatter)

NELSON: Badgered by journalists who want to talk to residents, the minders take the group to a covered mini-mall. But most of the customers, like this woman, are too frightened to be interviewed.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: No.

NELSON: No, okay.

She and others here stare wide-eyed at the government minders and police officers shadowing the reporters, including one who films the journalists as they go about their work.

Toy store cashier Fatima Sharif is less shy about talking to the foreigners.

Ms. FATIMA SHARIF (Cashier): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She denies the rebel reports of fighting going on near here. Even the NATO bombing has tapered off, she and others interviewed say.

But Sharif adds, life here is very tough.

Ms. SHARIF: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She describes how staples like milk are three times more expensive than they were before the war. Fuel is in short supply, requiring drivers to wait in line at the gas station for as long as a week to fill up.

Others complain about being out of work now that the cruise ships and tour buses that used to come here almost daily no longer do.

The mall is the only part of town the minders allow the journalists to go. They later hustle them to the World Heritage site called Leptis Magna, a sprawling city of Roman ruins.

On this day, the journalists don't mind the diversion. It's a chance to check out reports that the Libyan military is using this sprawling ancient city to hide its rockets and munitions.

Tour guide Khalif Hwuita is eager to show the news crews around. They are his first tourists since January.

Mr. KHALIF HWUITA (Tour Guide): To the right of the column and to the left of the column there is a lot of grapes and vines, referring to the industry of the area, like wine...

NELSON: But the 68-year-old balks when the journalists ask him whether Gadhafi is hiding weapons here.

Mr. HWUITA: No, no, no, no, no. Just tell me any point. Here is the place, and you can point anything I can lead you to, to show that nothing is used, but is nonsense - just propaganda.

NELSON: In Ohio, Susan Kane disagrees. The Oberlin College professor heads the Cyrenaica archeology project in Libya. Reached by Skype, Kane says she and other archeologists have received credible reports from Libyan colleagues about the military seeking cover at museums and historical sites like Leptis Magna.

Professor SUSAN KANE (Oberlin College): The Libyan government has always had an ambivalent and inconsistent policy about how they thought the pre-Arab culture of Libya was important or not. They don't care if Leptis gets hurt and they're just daring us to come and attack it.

NELSON: Journalists on the tour saw no sign of the Libyan military or weapons in the ancient city. Then again, they were shown only a very small part of it.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Tripoli.

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