Rebels Tasked With Ensuring Libyans Security

Nearly all Libyans agree that security should be a top priority for the country's interim government. Some councilmen and rebel commanders say the first step to ensuring security will be to take away the light arms that both sides handed out en masse.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Libyan assets frozen during the civil war included crates full of money. Before the uprising began, Moammar Gadhafi ordered the printing of a billion and a half dollars worth of bank notes from a British company. Delivery of that Libyan cash was blocked as the uprising began. Yesterday, the money started to flow. The British Air Force flew in crates of cash worth more than $227 million. The cash will be used to pay public workers and replenish ATMs.

Even as they try to distribute money, Libya's new leaders are hoping to collect weapons. Before the uprising began last February, few Libyans were allowed to carry a weapon. Even those in the military had restricted access. Now officials say almost every Libyan has a gun.

And that reality could threaten Libya's stability, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from the rebel capital of Benghazi.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: At a checkpoint on the western edge of this city, Ibrahim Najam holds his Kalashnikov as he and several friends board their ride to the front.

Mr. IBRAHIM NAJAM (Engineer): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 29-year-old engineer says he's had this gun since joining the fight in February. Like many of the weapons here, he got it from Gadhafi's troops when he and others drove them out earlier this year.

His Kalashnikov never leaves his side. But Najam says he'll have no problem giving it up if asked.

Mr. NAJAM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He explains that guns are for military men and not for civilians like him. Fellow fighter Adel Lafifi agrees. He's a construction consultant who has been assigned an anti-aircraft gun.

Mr. ADEL LAFIFI (Construction Consultant): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 35-year-old says stability in the new Libya will depend on people giving up their arms. He says he's prepared to hand over his heavy weapon as soon as Gadhafi is caught. That attitude is what rebel leaders are hoping for as they figure out how best to reclaim the guns and heavy weapons now on Libya's streets. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who heads the rebel transitional council, made this appeal at a recent news conference.

Mr. MUSTAFA ABDEL JALIL (Rebel Transitional Council): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The heroic youth fought epic battles, he said. And those youth must assure the world that they will lay down their arms as soon as the conflict ends.

Shamsiddin Ben-Ali is the council's chief spokesman.

Mr. SHAMSIDDIN BEN-ALI (Rebel Transitional Council): What would that person want to do with an automatic weapon such as a Kalashnikov? Other than have possible other intentions or - so most people will be advised to turn it in.

NELSON: Ben-Ali estimates the reclamation could take a year. He says the council will use public service announcements and cash, if necessary, to get people to cooperate. But Ben-Ali predicts there will likely be some troublemakers who will hang onto the guns they have.

Mr. BEN-ALI: They will have a grace period to turn their weapons in. After that, anybody found with a heavy weapon will face the full force of law.

NELSON: The rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani is more optimistic. He believes tribal elders will bring pressure on their clan members to cooperate. He says it's not part of modern Libyan culture to own weapons.

Bani adds even he has never carried a weapon during his 30-year military career. He says Gadhafi wouldn't allow it.

Colonel AHMED BANI (Rebel Spokesman): Before it was forbidden to have a gun. Forbidden, why? Not 'cause Moammar Gadhafi, he likes the people, he likes to be safe. No, no. Because he doesn't want anybody to have the gun because he's afraid of that gun. Maybe they will shoot him or something like that.

NELSON: He adds that in the future, the new government might allow Libyans to own handguns if they register them. But other than that, weapons will only be given to policemen and soldiers answering to the new Libyan government, Bani says. For now, Libyans openly carry their guns, even in cities like Benghazi that are firmly in rebel hands.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

NELSON: Many fire them into the air to celebrate, like at this recent homecoming of a freed prisoner.

Ahmed Abdel Wahab works at a cafe in downtown Benghazi.

Mr. AHMED ABDEL WAHAB: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says a lot of his friends have guns and that money might induce some to return them to the new government. But he adds others want to keep their guns as a memento or just to fire them into the air at parties.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Benghazi

INSKEEP: Libya's new government is still chasing down members of the old regime. Rebels claim they have captured Moammar Gadhafi's foreign minister, though they have not offered details of that capture. The man the rebels want most, of course, is Moammar Gadhafi himself. His son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, has made a statement about that on a Syrian television channel and some other outlets. He's said, quote, "Our leadership is fine; we're drinking tea and coffee."

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