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Libyan Rebels Block Gadhafi Stronghold Bani Walid


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Libya's rebels are blocking the exits to a town called Bani Walid. It's the latest location of a frontline in the war to capture the final strongholds of the ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi. Over the weekend, efforts to negotiate the town's surrender broke down. Those talks have now resumed, we're told, even as the rebels threaten to attack. NPR's Jason Beaubien is outside Bani Walid. He joins us now. And Jason, what's happening where you are?

JASON BEAUBIEN: I'm about 30 miles outside Bani Walid, and this is one of positions that the rebels have set up. They also have another position, further, closer to Bani Walid itself, but there are a lot of rebel fighters here. Negotiations have just sort of restarted at a mosque here. People came out of those negotiations saying they're very optimistic that Bani Walid is going to just come over to the revolutionary side. So the rebels here have been celebrating, they've been firing their guns in the air, singing "Gadhafi, die, die," and basically celebrating what they believe is the imminent surrender of Bani Walid.

INSKEEP: Sounds, though, like the rebels are having a party, rather than preparing for a military assault.

BEAUBIEN: At least right here, they are. But we are hearing, also, that closer to Bani Walid, they're really tightening the noose on the town. They've surrounded the town on three sides, they've set up military hospitals around there, in case there are casualties coming out. They definitely are preparing to attack the town, they say, if they can't work out some negotiated settlement. But now that the rebels have sort of taken over the government, they really would like to avoid any fighting. They would like to be able to have the rest of Libya just come and join them. And so that's really their goal, right now, is to no longer have any more military confrontations, just get people to sit down at the table and come over and join their side.

INSKEEP: Jason, I'm trying to put you on a map here. If I'm looking at Libya, Tripoli is on the coast in the western part of the country. You are where, a little bit east of Tripoli?

BEAUBIEN: I'm east, southeast of Tripoli, right now, a little bit to the west of Bani Walid which is further up towards the coast.

INSKEEP: So - so - so you're east of Tripoli, and if you continue further east, you're getting into what is, basically, what is still believed to be Moammar Gadhafi territory inside Libya?

BEAUBIEN: It is believed to be Moammar Gadhafi territory, his hometown of Sirte is just a little bit further along the coast. However, that territory is really shrinking - what is Moammar Gadhafi territory. It really seems that there are only these two towns - Bani Walid and Sirte, further south in the desert, the town of Sabha is also still claiming loyalty to Gadhafi, but the number of places that are still in his hands are really shrinking incredibly rapidly.

INSKEEP: So that would be the importance of this town of Bani Walid; if Bani Walid surrenders, the road is open to Gadhafi's hometown next?

BEAUBIEN: That's correct. And they also hope that this is going to be the model for the rest of these strongholds giving up. They hope that by getting Bani Walid to do this peacefully, then hopefully Sirte will just fall, also without a fight. And then Sabha, and then, pretty much, they've got the entire country under rebel control.

INSKEEP: Jason, I want to ask one other question - since there still is the possibility, it seems, of fighting at some point - you can sometimes hear of an army that is disorganized by victory. The thrill of victory can actually cause an army to begin to disintegrate to some degree. Do the rebels still seem very well organized and ready to fight if they have to?

BEAUBIEN: They - certainly the structures are still in place. There has been a little bit of dissension amongst the ranks, in terms of who is actually going to go in and do the fighting in Sirte, which people expected to be fairly -fairly difficult. Some people in Misrata were saying they think the guys from Benghazi should do it. The Benghazi guys think the guys from Misrata should do it. So there has been some dissension over that. But at the moment, certainly the structures are here. They're able to, you know, move people up to the front line. As I say, they're setting up hospitals here, to deal with any casualties. So certainly, their military structures are still in place.

INSKEEP: And one other quick question: what can the rebels offer Gadhafi's people in order to get them to surrender peacefully?

BEAUBIEN: They can offer them their safety, basically. They're saying, by surrendering, we will not harm the townspeople, only the people who were accused of crimes in Gadhafi's regime will be arrested and we promise we will not hurt them. Basically, that's what they're offering. They're saying we will offer you your safety, and if you don't, then we will come in and actually take the town by force.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is outside the town of Bani Walid in Libya.

GREENE: And there is some more news coming from Libya this morning. A convoy of troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi has crossed the country's southern border into Niger. They've reportedly reached the capital city of Niamey in Niger's southwestern corner, and that's not far from the nation of Burkina Faso, where Gadhafi has been offered asylum. Gadhafi's security chief is thought to be with the convoy, but the whereabouts of Gadhafi himself are still unknown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.