Rebels Tighten Hold On Gadhafi Stronghold

Rebel forces in Libya have surrounded the town of Bani Walid, southeast of the capital Tripoli. The rebels are still hoping to negotiate a peaceful takeover of the town, a stronghold of embattled leader Moammar Gadhafi, and avoid further civilian casualties. But Gadhafi loyalists are refusing to surrender.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan this month. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In Libya, rebels have surrounded the town of Bani Walid. It is one of the last places along the coast of the country that is still held by loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi, loyalists who were driven out of the capital Tripoli some time ago now.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is on the outskirts of Bani Walid. He's on the line.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So how are rebels trying to take this town?

BEAUBIEN: Things have really changed in terms of the way that the rebels are approaching taking towns at this point. Now that they've secured Tripoli, now that their revolution basically has succeeded, they don't want to rush in and have a massacre in one of these last holdouts of the Gadhafi regime. So they're really approaching this quite carefully. They're negotiating. They've got the town completely surrounded.

Yesterday we talked with Aweseif Arrazuk(ph). He was one of the negotiators involved, and here's what he said about how they're trying to handle these negotiations.

Mr. AWESEIF ARRAZUK: We are not here going even to capture any one of them. We are entering inside safely and we don't want even one blood, not just one dead.

BEAUBIEN: And he says that his family is from Bani Walid, other negotiators' families are from Bani Walid. They're seeing these as their brothers and they're hoping that the revolution can just happen there in a peaceful manner.

INSKEEP: Okay, so they don't want blood, but these negotiations haven't worked yet, have they?

BEAUBIEN: They haven't. And the rebel side are saying that's because some of the upper echelon people of the Gadhafi regime are still there. They're saying that two of Gadhafi's sons, Motasim and Saif, have been there very recently. Saif, they believe, has left. They also believe that some of the upper level ministers from the Gadhafi regime are still there and are sort of directing things and ordering people not to just lay down their weapons. So the rebels say that most of the town wants to join the revolution, and there are a few holdouts in there that are basically holding these people hostage.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to keep straight on the map here. Tripoli, of course, is on the coastline of the country in the western part of Libya. The rebels are now moving east. They've gotten to the outskirts of Bani Wilad. They're trying to talk or perhaps eventually shoot their way in. What happens if they succeed?

BEAUBIEN: Well, if they succeed, they're hoping that the town will just immediately flip over to the revolution, then they keep pushing forward toward Serte, the home town of Moammar Gadhafi. And once they take Serte, basically that is the last big holdout for the Gadhafi loyalists. There are a few other pockets in the south out in the desert. But in terms of significant towns of any size, you know, Bani Walid is about 70,000 people, and Serte, being a home town of Gadhafi, those would be the last two towns of any significance that are still in Gadhafi's hands. So they feel like if they can get Bani Walid, they're hoping that Serte would then just have a domino effect and Serte would fall too.

INSKEEP: Is there any concern, Jason Beaubien, that there are still apparently Gadhafi loyalists willing to fight, at least up till this day? Even though Gadhafi had been pushed out of Tripoli, it suggests a good deal of resilience on their part.

BEAUBIEN: Yes, there's very much a concern of that. And that is part of the reason that they're not rushing into Bani Walid right now. They believe that there people there that would be willing to open fire on these revolutionaries, as they call themselves now, and they believe that it could turn into a real bloodbath, because some of the people who are in there are wanted. The rebels say that they were going to treat them well. They say that they were going to put them before a court, that they won't torture them, but these people basically have nowhere left to run.

And there is concern that some of these really hard-line Gadhafi loyalists may want to put up quite a fight and even die as martyrs for what they view as their cause.

INSKEEP: This has also been described as a country that is divided along tribal lines. Are there individual tribes here that might be willing to fight a lot longer than would seem sensible to outsiders?

BEAUBIEN: You know, many of the people that I talked to, particularly being in the rebel-held parts, they say that the tribes no longer matter, that, you know, that Gadhafi basically used tribes against each other when he was in power. But now that there's this revolution, there's a unity against what was the old Gadhafi regime.

That's their view inside the revolutionary's camp, but it'll obviously have to wait to see how things play out once the final Gadhafi people are gone to see whether those tribal divisions are still quite strong in Libya.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Libya. Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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