Libyan Rebels March On Tripoli

Residents of Tripoli are fleeing as Libyan rebels move slowly toward the capital city. The battlefront is now about 18 kilometers out of town; there's also heavy, bitter fighting and multiple NATO airstrikes in Zawiyah. Meanwhile, rumors about the fate and location of Moammar Gadhafi and his son are rampant. Guest host John Ydstie gets the latest on the rebel advance from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Libya.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. We start with breaking news from Libya where a major battle near Tripoli is underway. Assisted by NATO airstrikes, the rebels have overrun the town of Mayah, about 22 miles outside of Tripoli. The fighters continue to push on toward the capital where small cells of lightly-armed rebels are trying to keep government troops at bay. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Mayah as the fighting continues. Bring us up to date, Lulu.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the frontline right now of the battle for the capital, Tripoli. What we've seen is rebels move all the way from the town of Zawiyah up to Maya. And they are now about 10 miles outside of the capital. They've gained a great deal of territory. This town Mayah was - I'm sorry, there was some shooting going on here. It's still quite a volatile area. This town Mayah was where one of the strongest brigades of one of Gadhafi's son's was headquartered. It was hit by a NATO bomb and that allowed the rebels to move forward. And they've come in in full force. I'm seeing pickup trucks with weapons and fighters streaming past me, pushing forward. They are looting, essentially, this brigade; getting weapons, getting supplies for their push on the capital.

YDSTIE: What news are you getting about the fighting inside Tripoli?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the reasons why the rebels are pushing so hard down this road into Tripoli, is that they're trying to reinforce the cells that are already operating inside of the capital, Tripoli, in places like Fashloom, Suhail Juma. These particular neighborhoods were where the original uprising happened and then they were brutally crushed. And so they've been sort of lying in wait, waiting for this day. And so for the past 24 hours what we've seen is these cells operating. They are armed. So they're lightly armed, and they're facing, in some instances, the firing of heavy weapons. So, there is fierce fighting we're been told from families who are fleeing that violence. And they say that all over Tripoli there is fighting in many, many neighborhoods. Some of them are (unintelligible), others are still contested.

YDSTIE: How are the Libyan people? How are civilians responding to this intense fighting? Are people streaming out of Tripoli?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, families are fleeing the violence. We've seen a steady stream of people with their belongings packed in their car; young children, old men and women, mothers and fathers, basically, getting in their cars and leaving to the safety of the west. In some neighborhoods they say mortars are being launched and there's, you know, Gadhafi's forces are using heavy weapons and they're very frightened.

But the general feeling of the rebels is ebullience. Like I say, I'm seeing them stream past me, they feel that victory is very, very close now. And they've seen Gadhafi's forces, which they once felt were impregnable, crumble before them. This brigade that was stationed here in Mayah was one of the strongest, headed by one of Gadhafi's sons, Khamis. And they have been able to take it. They are taking weapons from it and they are moving forward to Tripoli.

YDSTIE: And do we know where Colonel Gadhafi is right now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know that Colonel spoke yesterday and he made a point to say the date, reiterating it several times so people would know that it was a live broadcast. However, frankly, we don't know his whereabouts. No video, so we don't know exactly where he is at the moment. But what's clear, from what he said, is that he is going to stay here and fight to the death. That was his message to the rebels, that was his message to his loyalists. And so, what people here now believe is that the fight for Tripoli will be difficult. They will have to wrest control of Tripoli and of Libya from him.

YDSTIE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in the town of Mayah, just outside Tripoli. Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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