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Libyan Rebels, Regime Put Attention On Gharyan

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Libyan Rebels, Regime Put Attention On Gharyan

Libyan Rebels, Regime Put Attention On Gharyan

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we're going to hear from Libya now, specifically western Libya. Rebel fighters have gained ground there and the rebel offensive has been bolstered by NATO's air campaign. Until now, the ground fighting has been largely confined to a mountain plateau southwest of Tripoli. But now, the rebels are eyeing objectives closer to the Mediterranean coast. And that's where we begin our coverage today.

Libyan authorities recently took a small group of journalists to a city not far from Tripoli. It was an effort to demonstrate that the city remains firmly in government control and that the people there support Moammar Gadhafi.

But as NPR's Corey Flintoff found, the real extent of that support is unclear.

COREY FLINTOFF: Gharyan straddles a strategic mountain road, just 55 miles south of Tripoli, which is why it's become a key objective for rebels who are trying to advance on the capital. In late February, some residents staged a brief uprising against the Gadhafi regime, a rebellion that was swiftly put down by the Libyan army.

In a bid to show local support for the regime, Libyan government minders took a busload of foreign reporters to Gharyan on Sunday, showing them a local market and staging a pro-Gadhafi demonstration.

(Soundbite of chanting men)

FLINTOFF: These demonstrations have become routine for visiting reporters: demonstrators chant pro-Gadhafi slogans, wave government flags and display posters of the leader.

What was striking about this one is how small it was. Several dozen boys and men, some in army uniforms, gathered to chant as the reporters' bus arrived outside a small government compound.

Inside, about a dozen women posed with weapons and said they were preparing to fight any rebel or NATO attack.

(Soundbite of chanting women and gunfire)

FLINTOFF: It seemed a small show of support for a city that's said to have several hundred thousand people. But the city itself looked strangely empty, with few cars or people on the streets. Some residents say many people have left the city to avoid potential fighting.

Pro-Gadhafi towns tend to show their support for the government by hanging green flags or government posters on their houses but there were few of them to be seen in Gharyan.

About a block away from the gunfire at the demonstration, it was possible to talk with a shopkeeper without having a government minder present. He gave his name as Izmael and said that he and his family have heard bombing in the surrounding area for four straight nights, and that tallies with NATO reports which say airstrikes in the area have targeted military weapons, such as tanks and rocket launchers.

But Ismael says the strikes have also killed civilians.

ISMAEL: Two kilometers, you can see too much hole left on sides of streets. And two men died there. Two men dead.

FLINTOFF: Civilians?

ISMAEL: Yes.

FLINTOFF: He says his mother and father, who suffer from diabetes, have had to be taken to the hospital because of the stress of the bombing, and his children are afraid.

Asked how many civilians have been killed, Ismael says this is what he's heard on the pro-Gadhafi State TV channels.

ISMAEL: I think 4,000.

FLINTOFF: Here?

ISMAEL: I think 4,000 here and Zintan, because Gharyan big city. Too much, every day. Every day. Every day, eh, people die. Why? Why? Why? Why?

FLINTOFF: NATO does not acknowledge killing any civilians in the vicinity of Gharyan.

After the visit to Gharyan, the government minders took reporters to the small nearby town of al-Asabeah, where there was a much bigger and more energetic demonstration in favor of the government.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

FLINTOFF: Men and women stood outside houses along the road, waving their fists and brandishing guns they say they will use to fight enemies of the government. Reporters were not taken to any military sites, so it's impossible to say what the Libyan army may have in store for advancing rebels.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Tripoli.

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