Libyans Launch Attack On Towns Loyal To Gadhafi

Libya's victorious rebels say they will soon launch operations against the last three Libyan towns still held by forces loyal to ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Corey Flintoff from Bani Walid, in the desert south of Tripoli.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: In Libya today, fighting broke out in and around the towns that have remained loyal to President Moammar Gadhafi - Bani Walid and Sirte. The rebels had set a Saturday deadline for Bani Walid to surrender, but decided to begin the attack on Friday night in response to rocket fire from Gadhafi forces.

NPR's Corey Flintoff is with the rebels at a staging area about 3.1 miles outside of Bani Walid. Corey, thanks for being with us. What are you seeing? What's happening?

COREY FLINTOFF: Well, it's very hard to tell what's going on in Bani Walid. We've seen rebels moving forward to the front all morning. There are convoys of a dozen or so, pickup trucks and cars going by. The rebels chanting Allahu akbar, God is great, as they prepare to go to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FLINTOFF: Any gunfire though, that you may be hearing in the background right now is really as far as we can tell is just undisciplined fire on the part of the rebel forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

FLINTOFF: There are some right now, in fact.

SIMON: It still comes down somewhere so be careful. Corey, Bani Walid is symbolic as one of the two last towns that remain loyal to Gadhafi, but does it have any strategic importance?

FLINTOFF: You know, Scott, it really doesn't seem to have much strategic importance. It's right now it's surrounded by rebels. It's not controlling a significant road. But it does seem to have enormous symbolic value, especially if it could be taken with minimum casualties. Then it would be an example to the other main city, which is Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

The other important thing about Bani Walid is that two of Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam and Saadi, are believed to be there and their capture or their deaths would be an important signal that it really is over for the Gadhafi regime.

SIMON: And what's going on in the rest of Libya?

FLINTOFF: Well, elsewhere in Libya it almost seems as if the war is over. We were in Tripoli last night and there was an enormous demonstration in Martyr Square, the central square that used to be called Green Square. It was really a giant party for people in Tripoli and at that point it was all celebration and very little sense that there's any fighting going on in the rest of the country. Of course, for the new leadership, the Transitional National Council, there's a great deal of struggle ahead. Right now they have to prove that they can unite themselves, all the disparate military units. They have to prove that they can provide basic government services. And they also have to prove that they really are a transitional government and that they're not a sort of nascent new dictatorship. A number of people we talked to said over and over again that we don't want a new Gadhafi. We want a man who's in power who we can throw out after four years if we have to.

SIMON: So there's a sense that the battle has been won but the struggle is ahead.

FLINTOFF: That's exactly right. Things are seemingly returning to normal in Tripoli, though. We're seeing a lot more shops opening up. We're seeing even some restaurants opening up, a lot of people in the street, a lot of traffic even though there are gas lines and gas shortages going on right now. And people seem generally jubilant about what's happened and genuinely willing to give the transitional government time to let things settle down. A lot of people said we need time and we need patience.

SIMON: Thanks so much. NPR's Corey Flintoff.

FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Scott. Thank you.

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