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Libyan Rebels Capture More Cities Near Tripoli


Let's turn now to another story we're following: Libya, where rebel forces have made some dramatic gains. Rebels have fought their way out of the mountains to a key coastal city just 30 miles from the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

In a defiant speech last night, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi exhorted his followers to fight, even as reports surfaced of talks between the regime and the rebels.

We've got NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the line. She's in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

And Lulu, what is the latest?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Renee, this isn't going to be a quick fight, and it's a brutal one already. This was the rebel plan all along, to use the Nafusa Mountains as a staging ground to sweep down to the coast. They've been preparing this offensive for weeks, and in a matter of days, they've made a pretty impressive advance, essentially changing the deadlock dynamic of this war for now.

What we know is that the fighting in Zawiyah has been incredibly fierce. Gadhafi's forces have been using heavy weapons. They have snipers on rooftops, according to the rebels. And loyalists are not giving up without a fight. The question here is: Can the rebels hold the city? They are inside of Zawiyah, but certainly do not control it. Zawiyah is about 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli, right on its doorstep. So it's a vital win.

But it's not the only one. There's fighting going on on all the frontlines here right now - to the south of Tripoli in the city of Gharyan. That is the gateway city to supplies coming into Tripoli from the south. There is fighting to the east of Tripoli in Misrata. And, of course, there's the very active frontline here in the east in the town of Brega. Gadhafi's forces are now being stretched, and they're battling on multiple fronts.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get back to that speech that Moammar Gadhafi gave last night. And did he speak about talks?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, he didn't. In fact, the regime has denied that there are talks going on. Those reports surfaced from the Reuters news agency, saying that in the coastal island of Djerba in Tunisia, the rebels were meeting with the regime. However, we have had no confirmation of that, either from the rebels or from the regime.

Gadhafi last night - in an audiotape of very poor quality - in fact, took a very different tact. He was very defiant. He said, quote, "Move forward, challenge, pick up your weapons. Go to the fight. We're liberating Libya inch-by-inch from the traitors and from NATO. The blood of martyrs," he said, "is fuel for the battlefield."

There has been a lot of speculation, Renee, as to Gadhafi's whereabouts and, obviously, his plans. You know, there have been reports earlier in the week of talks between the regime and American representatives. What does this all mean? Could Gadhafi be looking for a way out? We don't know.

MONTAGNE: Well, again, about the city of Zawiyah, how easy is it going to be for the rebels to take control of that city so near to Tripoli? And remind us again how important it is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, by getting into Zawiyah, the rebels have managed to cut the vital supply road to the Tunisian border. This road - and I've traveled it many times - is a road where all the supplies - food, medicine, fuel - comes into the capital. It's the artery of Tripoli. And we know that the fighting has effectively, for now, cut that road off. Tripoli and its residents are certainly going to feel that.

And Zawiyah's also the home of the last refinery under Gadhafi's control. There is a terrible fuel crisis in western Libya already. This means that Gadhafi's troops eventually may have trouble even keeping mobile if the rebels manage to keep control of Zawiyah.

But on the other side, the rebels themselves have had trouble keeping ground once they've taken it. They also have fuel problems, supply issues, training issues. So can they keep the city of Zawiyah? We do know that it is a place that has risen up against Gadhafi twice already. The people there are sympathetic to the rebels. The key thing is that Tripoli is now encircled. There is fighting on all sides of it. Vital supply lines have been disrupted. Could Gadhafi's forces rally? Absolutely. But right now in terms of the fighting, it's going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.