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NATO Bombs Libya; Rebels Reportedly Advance

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Libya, there are reports that rebel forces are making advances against government troops in the western city of Misrata. Fierce fighting continues there and elsewhere. And NATO has carried out more airstrikes on forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi. And, Lulu, why don't you update us first on the situation to the west of where you are in Misrata today?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spoke to people in Misrata today and there is fierce fighting at the airport. This has been the scene of heavy clashes for several days now.

The airport is key for two reasons. Rebels want a way other than the port to bring in supplies. Just to show you the difficulty with the port, for example, today a boat laden with weapons and fighters tried to leave Benghazi from Misrata, but was turned back because of bad weather. So it's an unreliable way to supply the city.

We're also hearing reports that the rebels have broken through one of the frontlines around Misrata and have reached a town about 15 miles outside of the city. This is potentially a key development that shows that the rebels have momentum on their side.

The aim of the rebels in this is to push Gadhafi's forces far enough back so that they aren't able to reach the civilian population inside Misrata with their grad missiles. Grad missiles have been raining down on civilian population in Misrata for weeks now. And the rebels really want to push Gadhafi forces back so that they can't hit those populations anymore.

BLOCK: And what about where you are in the eastern part of the country, the rebel stronghold around Benghazi, where the battle lines don't seem to have shifted much lately?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They haven't shifted, basically, for several weeks now. And that's because NATO has essentially asked the rebels to hold back. They are in control of the town of Ajdabiya. Gadhafi forces have the town of Brega. That's the next town up. And so, basically, they have not really been able to advance in the east at all.

NATO wants to keep it that way, it seems, because they're hitting Gadhafi's forces. And if the fighting is very close, as has happened in the past, NATO can erroneously hit the rebel positions and they don't want that to happen and so they basically asked the rebels to stand back and keep a buffer zone between the two sides.

BLOCK: And as we mentioned, overnight, another series of NATO airstrikes, this time on the Libyan capital, Tripoli. What do you know about the targets?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't know very much. We do know that NATO said that they had hit command and control centers. We have heard on the ground in Tripoli that one of the buildings that was hit was apparently a center of intelligence for the Gadhafi forces, but beyond that it's very difficult to know.

What we do know is it was a very sustained attack. It lasted about three hours. That's the heaviest bombardment we've seen for several weeks. And so that does indicate that they are targeting Tripoli fairly heavily.

BLOCK: One last thing, Lulu, there are reports that hundreds of migrants who were fleeing Libya have died at sea. What can you tell us about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's actually one of the more horrific stories in this conflict so far. Apparently a boat laden with refugees leaving the western part of Libya basically went out to sea; apparently they were forced at gunpoint, by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, onto this boat. It was very ill-prepared and essentially many of them perished.

Some 600, they believe, died after their boat capsized. Really terrible scenes and, of course, international humanitarian organizations are asking, pleading because many - there are many of these boats trying to get to Europe - for NATO to intervene if they see them, if they hear distress calls, because many of these boats seem to be very unstable and putting the lives of these refugees at risk.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting from Benghazi, Libya. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.