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Gadhafi Forces Advance On Rebel-Held Ras Lanuf


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Libya, the front lines in the eastern part of the country seem to be blurring this morning. There are reports that troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi are advancing toward a key oil town that's now being held by rebels.

NPR's Peter Kenyon was in that town, Ras Lanuf, earlier today, where he witnessed airstrikes. He joins us now from the nearby port city of Brega.

And what is the latest there, Peter?

PETER KENYON: Well, Renee, we've talked with a colonel with some air defense experience. He has now joined the rebels. Colonel Mansur(ph) is his name. And he told us just recently there was a third airstrike, a total of three today, at the oil port of Ras Lanuf. All three of them landed in the desert near an oil terminal, near the checkpoints on the eastern side of the city that is controlled by the rebels. So far we have no reports of casualties or major damage from any of those strikes.

But clearly the advance of the rebels has been halted. Yesterday they were ambushed at Bin Jawad, which is a village about 40 miles from that checkpoint I was just describing. And what we're told now today by Colonel Mansur and two other fighters is that the that village has been evacuated. All the civilians have been moved out by the pro-Gadhafi forces. And so now Ben Jawad is empty. There was one report that is unconfirmed, that there were fires there, that the village was badly damaged. We don't know if that's true. But clearly the push forward by the rebels has now turned into a hold and possibly a defensive posture at Ras Lanuf.

MONTAGNE: Well, if the Libyan troops are advancing, what is the mood there in that oil city of Ras Lanuf?

KENYON: There is, I don't know, kind of a dichotomy of moods there. You have the overwhelming majority of young fighters, inexperienced volunteers. They're laborers, they're clerks, they're lawyers. There are many of them holding guns for the first time, have had very little training. And what they have in abundance is enthusiasm. And they want to push forward. We talked to a number of young men who said we're just waiting for a few reinforcements and then we're off. We're going to take back Ben Jawad. We're going to Sirt Gadhafi's home town, which is of course a real stronghold with very well-trained military forces there.

So you hear that a lot. And then occasionally you find the more experienced veteran army people who have switched sides and joined the rebels, and they are much more circumspect. They say, look, we need to get some more reinforcements, we need to consolidate positions before we go rushing headlong into what has turned out to be very well-fortified positions beyond Ras Lanuf.

MONTAGNE: And what have the civilian the regular people - been telling you in Ras Lanuf and also there where you are now in Brega?

KENYON: Well, we've been hearing unhappy stories of people caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, where fighting broke out around them. Many people are fleeing. We're seeing streams of cars going in both directions. Of course the rebel fighters are moving towards the fighting and the civilians are going back away, back towards Ajdabiya, maybe even Benghazi, deep inside the rebel-held eastern part of Libya.

When you ask them what side they're on, they invariably say they're on the side of the rebels, because they're behind rebel lines, and quite possibly many of them mean it. It's just hard to tell, 'cause the situation is so tense and so fluid.

The people in Bin Jawad, of course, bore the brunt of it, because they were the front line as of yesterday, and now they've been evacuated. The people here in Brega say they've been kidnapped. But it's impossible to say where this is going.

Clearly the forward push, though, has stalled for the moment.

MONTAGNE: Now, just briefly, you mentioned the military officers who've joined the rebellion. How organized is the military effort?

KENYON: They're trying to impose some order and discipline on the young troops, but it's very, very difficult. We've had officers tell us, you know, I gave some orders, I tried to do some training, but they said, no, give us weapons, we want to go. And it's civilian cars you're seeing Peugots and Toyotas and Kias cruising filled with people wearing their scarves, occasionally there's a uniform, you know, shaking their fists and vowing to move ahead.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thats NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from eastern Libya in the port city of Brega. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.