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Gadhafi Forces Keep Libyan Rebels Pinned Down


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In the skies over Libya, NATO will take command of the newly established no-fly zone. American air and sea power will remain a key factor in keeping Moammar Gadhafi's troops from attacking. But on the ground, Libyan rebels are stalled in their efforts to advance on government forces.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, civilians are fleeing the front lines of the fighting.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Houda Ali Abdullah says her family was one of the last to leave her neighborhood on the edge of Ajdabiya. They had hunkered down inside for days, holding out, she says, until a government artillery round landed near her house, partially destroying it.

Ms. HOUDI ALI ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The soldiers cut the water, the electricity, the lights, she says. We heard the artillery rounds coming in. I don't know what it was - a rocket, a big bomb. I'm not a military person. But I had to take my children and leave, she says.

Her family was not injured, but the artillery strike was the last straw. Now she and her four young kids are taking partial shelter from a fierce sandstorm behind a gas station that's now out of gas on the roadway just outside Ajdabiya.

Along with her brother, she's trying to hitch a ride north to relatives in Benghazi. Houda says she's not taking sides, that she doesn't really care who wins. She just wants the violence to stop.

Ms. ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: How can Muslims kill their fellow Muslim brothers, she yells. How is this possible? Both sides are yelling, God is great, like God's on their side. Shame on you. We used to be united, she says.

Her brother, Sabre Ali Abdullah, is 23 years old and jobless. He's distraught about not knowing what happened to his older brother.

Mr. SABRE ALI ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Gadhafi is sending people here to kidnap, to disappear people, he says. My brother's been missing for 21 days. We have no idea where he is.

The French military says one of its fighter jets shot down a Libyan government plane near here and bombed a government air base deep inside the country Thursday. Elsewhere Thursday, coalition bombers hit several of Colonel Gadhafi's ammunition depots, as well as parked helicopters, among other targets.

In Benghazi, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, an air force pilot who defected to the rebel side, says the group is aggressively seeking desperately needed weapons for its untrained fighters. But no foreign troops are needed, he says, adding: Our only foreign expert is Google Earth.

Colonel AHMED OMAR BANI (Former Libyan Air Force Pilot): (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: We've talked with our friends around the world and told them we need help, he says - not weapons or advisors. Air strikes are enough, he adds. Just weapons, especially anti-tank rockets and communications equipment. Everyone who loves freedom would love to help us, he adds, declining to name any countries sending arms, which he insists are approaching.

Col. BANI: Yes. Yes. Approaching, approaching, approaching. We will see you later. Okay, thank you. Thank you, gentlemen.

WESTERVELT: But rebel forces remain stuck on the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Back on the road outside that city, 19-year-old Ibrahim Ardiwah sits in his cousin's car with a bullet wound to his leg. He's heading to Benghazi for treatment.

Mr. IBRAHIM ARDIWAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Because of the fighting and clashes, the situation in the hospital is not known, he says. It may not be safe. There might still be snipers around the hospital area.

Nearby, Houda Ali Abdullah, displaced by the fighting, says her four young kids huddling next to her are scared and confused. The youngest is three. The oldest just turned 12.

Ms. ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Well, I just try to tell the kids there are some men outside shooting guns, celebrating. But they're confused. For years, they'd call Gadhafi Father Moammar, she says. Now what do I tell them?

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, near Ajdabiya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.