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Evacuees From Libya Relay Terrifying Accounts

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Libyan rebels are in Qatar today. That's one of the countries that has joined the alliance against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyan rebels are meeting high level Western and Arab envoys and asking for more international pressure on Gadhafi.

In Libya itself, a Qatari ship has evacuated some 600 Libyans and Egyptians from the embattled city of Misrata. NPR's Peter Kenyon met some of them at the Egyptian border and heard tales of terrified civilians facing severe shortages and brutal house-to-house fighting.

PETER KENYON: After nearly two months of being trapped in her house with a heart condition, listening to the sounds of shells, screams and gunfire, Salma Omar found herself sitting on a curb outside the immigration hall at the Egyptian border, wondering what comes next.

Bouncing one of her six grandchildren on her knee as children begin a pick-up soccer game nearby, Omar says in the 70 years she's lived in Misrata she's never seen anything like it no water, no electricity, and people falling dead in the streets.

Ms. SALMA OMAR: (Through translator) It was very difficult for me leaving my country, but because of the attacks and the strikes, I had to leave. My family is okay, it's a large family. They couldn't all leave at once.

KENYON: Standing nearby is Nagwa Brahim, an Egyptian worker who fled on the same boat. Cradling a young curly-haired child with startling blue eyes, she says when the shells started landing near her house, she and her neighbor fled to a school while they desperately waited for a way out.

Ms. NAGWA BRAHIM: (Through translator) The shelling was terrifying, and the stories we heard were worse. We heard the Gadhafi troops were kidnapping people. We were just waiting for anyone to help us. I want to thank the people who sent the ships, and the people of Tobruk were very kind to us as well.

KENYON: Inside the immigration hall, families huddle on blankets and on benches, anywhere they can find space. Issa Ziad Said, a young Egyptian who worked in Misrata as an electrician, said just going out on the street meant taking your life in your hands.

Mr. ISSA ZIAD SAID (Electrician): (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: I went out one day, he said, and all of a sudden bullets were whizzing by my head. I saw a tank shell fall on a porch. It split an Egyptian guy named Magdy in half. I don't know much about him except he was from Mansoura.

Another young Egyptian worker, Mohammed Abdel Menem, says they waited 40 days in camps before getting on the Qatari ship. He says the most terrifying thing was the random way death was meted out to fighters and civilians alike, and the constant fear that he could be next.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABDEL MENEM: (Through translator) The Gadhafi forces aren't differentiating among their targets. They're attacking the young, the old, women, dragging people from their houses. Since they heard ships were coming in to evacuate us, they started shelling the harbor.

KENYON: Menem says the coverage from the NATO no-fly zone is not continuous, and the Gadhafi forces are learning to time their attacks when the NATO planes aren't around. Sixty-year-old Mohammed Sayed Hassan says the sounds and smells of Misrata reminded him of his days in the Egyptian army during the 1973 war with Israel. He says Misrata's main thoroughfares are scenes of carnage.

Mr. MOHAMMED SAYED HASSAN: (Through translator) In the streets of Misrata I've seen bodies, I've seen them burned. The snipers are shooting people at random.

KENYON: He doesn't sound especially hopeful about the rebels' chances, although he says it's not impossible.

Mr. HASSAN: (Through translator) If the rebels get supplies and more advanced weapons, then it might take them a month to push back the Gadhafi forces.

KENYON: Human Rights Watch recently reported on its own interviews with a number of evacuees and found at least 257 fatalities in less than two months in Misrata. The evacuees reported pro-Gadhafi attacks on medical clinics and a number of random sniper shootings.

The Egyptian evacuees who spoke to NPR said they worried about the Libyans still trapped in Misrata, estimating that several thousand people are still seeking rescue. Their figures and their descriptions of events could not be independently confirmed. As for Mohammed Menem, he shrugs when asked what he'll do now and speaks of heading to Cairo.

Mr. MENEM: (Through translator) I'll stay in the street. I'll stay in Tahrir Square until they find a solution.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.