MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In eastern Libya, allied air strikes have pushed Libyan government forces back from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. We're going to hear from the front lines. We'll also hear from Senator John Kerry on what the allied mission is, and is not, intended to achieve. And we'll hear how the secretary of Defense has been transformed from skeptic to defender of the no-fly zone.

First, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report from the front lines near Ajdabiya, where he found rebels unable to advance.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The main roadway southwest out of Benghazi, toward the front, is littered with the ruins of some of Colonel Gadhafi's heavy armor, destroyed in Western air strikes over the past few days.

There's an armored personal carrier smoking and charred here in the field, next to two turrets of Russian-made mobile artillery units. Kids now playing on them, locals taking photos. It's become kind of a tourist site here on the roadway between Benghazi and Ajdabiya. People looking at the carnage and destruction from allied air strikes, kind of war tourism is taking place here.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Look at what Gadhafi is doing with our country's wealth, 68-year- old Mohammed Khalifa says with disgust, adding: He's buying weapons to attack his own people. He has no heart, no mercy.

Forty-five-year-old Ahmed Jarbou, a businessman from Benghazi, drove out with his wife and young daughter to see the destruction firsthand. He stands next to a massive, mobile artillery piece, cradling a sawed-off shotgun in one arm, his 2-year-old daughter in the other. He denounces Gadhafi, and derides his claim that he's fighting al-Qaida.

BLOCK: Two days she's crying, after the booms at home.

WESTERVELT: Very difficult days, I'm sure.

BLOCK: Yes, yes. He's crazy. How any people can kill - his people by this one, by this machine? Kids and women, and gentlemen - he's looking for al-Qaida? No, these are Benghazi's people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

WESTERVELT: Nearby, rebel fighter Mohammed El Gizeery is showing his 60-year- old mother, Hahdiya, around the carnage.

HAHDIYA: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: We saw Gadhafi's attacks and the airstrikes, she says, and we were not afraid. God protected us. We thank Europe and America for all their help and support and, God willing, we'll now be victorious now, she says.

But half an hour up the desert road from here, rebel fighters near the front line are not as confident. They've been unable, so far, to make much progress at all. They keep getting pushed back when they try to fight forward into Ajdabiya. The entrance to the city is still guarded by Gadhafi's tanks and heavy artillery.

Thirty-six-year-old fighter Fathi Belas left his elementary school teaching job to join the fight here.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: We still need everything, he says - heavy weapons; night vision goggles; we have no proper communications gear. Nearby, 22-year-old fighter Sanad el Hassi is resting in his pickup truck, his AK-47 by his side.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: We have a huge difference in his forces. He has more heavy weapons and ammunition than we do, he says. He still has his tanks, grad rockets and artillery, he adds. We're worried about our brothers in Misurata, he says, of rebels under siege in that city, far to the west of here. News reports quoting witnesses there say more than 40 civilians have been killed in Misurata in the last two days.

Rebel officials here say some of Gadhafi's troops, using heavy armor, tried again to push into Benghazi last night. They were stopped by allied airstrikes, rebel officials say. It's possible that one of the planes involved in that operation was the U.S. F15-Eagle fighter bomber, which crashed in the Libyan desert near here last night. The Pentagon says the cause was mechanical failure. Both pilots, the military says, ejected and are now safe.

NPR has interviewed an Egyptian doctor here who treated one of the pilots. The pilot was taken to a hotel in Benghazi around 2 a.m. last night by rebel sympathizers. Dr. Dina Omar says she was surfing the Web late at her hotel when she got word that a U.S. pilot needed to be looked at. She says he wouldn't give his name or any other information, wouldn't talk much at all at first. But slowly, she says, he became less anxious after realizing he really was in supportive hands.

HAHDIYA: After two hours, he start to speak and start to smile and he even said, I have to trust you because if you're with Gadhafi or other side, you're a good actor.

WESTERVELT: The pilot, she says, suffered only minor bruises. Dr. Omar says the pilot left after 5 a.m. with the help from members of the rebel's Provisional National Council. It's not clear how he was whisked out of the country.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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