Rebels Edge Into Gadhafi's Birthplace

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Rebels in eastern Libya are nearing one of the last remaining Gadhafi strongholds outside Tripoli: the Libyan leader's birthplace, Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. It's unclear whether the city will surrender, but the rebels have gained ground nearby in recent days, capturing the oil port of Ras Lanuf, just over 100 miles east of Sirte. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Soraya Nelson for more.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. We begin our coverage of Libya this hour on the front lines east of Tripoli. Rebel forces are edging closer to one of Moammar Gadhafi's last strongholds outside the capitol. Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, is Gadhafi's birthplace. It remains a bastion of support for him, but over the past week, rebel forces have captured other coastal towns to the east. They are now about 120 miles from Sirte. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled near the front lines today and she joins us now on a satellite phone.

Soraya, what is the latest you've heard about fighting along the coast where you are?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, we were able to make it all the way to Ras Lanuf. This is, of course, an important town because there's a refinery there. And that is where we were stopped. The front was about 30 miles from there and what's happening is Gadhafi forces are in a town called - or on the other side of a town called Bin Jawad and they were apparently shelling and rocketing toward Ras Lanuf. So that road was no longer safe and the rebels would not let us move any closer.

BLOCK: You mentioned the refinery there in Ras Lanuf, Soraya, and that's key here. That's why this area is so highly contested that there are these oil installations there.

NELSON: Absolutely. There are several very important here, including in Brega, the national oil company is located there. So this is an area that has been heavily fought over and the rebels have taken it and lost ground several times, in Brega and then Ras Lanuf, this is the second time that they're there. But because of the rebel forces' activities in Tripoli, they feel this time they will actually be able to keep it. It's somewhat of a symbolic victory since they're still trying to find Gadhafi.

But nevertheless, at this stage, they feel very strongly that they have taken this place for good.

BLOCK: Soraya, what was the scene as you drove along these areas along the Mediterranean coast. What did you see?

NELSON: Well, the road itself is pretty clear. You see a lot of rebels in pickup trucks with mounted guns, mounted cannons and the like. There are some checkpoints. But they're fairly relaxed until you get closer to the front lines, then the tensions mount. This is very much - they very much give the appearance of a ragtag sort of militia. It's not a very organized army. And one can see where they've had some difficulties fighting Gadhafi, so you see a lot of blown up equipment, military equipment, a lot of blown up installations.

And in Brega, we saw petrol tanks or gas tanks that were actually on fire and it was unclear if they had been shelled or what, but they were burning.

BLOCK: Soraya, what about the civilian population in these areas that have been so heavily fought over?

NELSON: Well, the civilians are starting to slowly move back in. I saw many men today, the men of the family, returning to Brega for the first time, checking on their properties that many of them haven't seen in months. And it was a mass scene of destruction on the inside of the homes. While the homes themselves, they did sustain some bullet damage, shelling, that sort of thing, it was inside that was really traumatic for many of these families because Gadhafi forces - or they were accusing Gadhafi forces of having gone in and they had completely torn the homes apart.

And we even spoke to a man whose wife had died while pregnant last year. All her pictures were gone. He couldn't find a single picture of her. He was quite upset about that when we spoke to him. But the feeling is that in the coming days, people are going to start - families are going to start moving back in. And a lot of the people in Brega, they work at the oil refinery. We went there as well.

And they're very determined to come back and heed the transitional council's calls to come in and help repair, help rebuild, so that they can get the refineries going. Gas is very difficult to come by here, as we discovered today. We were basically stopping friends of the driver and then putting fuel from their tank into our tank just so we could make it back to Ajdabiya.

BLOCK: Okay, Soraya. Stay safe. Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from eastern Libya.

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