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Rebels Recapture Port As They Head For Tripoli

GUY RAZ, host:

Now in Libya, as I mentioned a few moments ago, the fighting between pro-government forces and anti-Gadhafi rebels continues to rage in many of the coastal cities east of the capital Tripoli.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the latest from the town of Ras Lanuf.

(Soundbite of honking)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Driving pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back and other more incongruous vehicles, like hatchbacks and station wagons, rebel fighters pushed into the west. The men here are flush with victory.

Even though there is little discipline or cohesion to this ragtag group, the rebels have managed to take two towns in as many days. Gadhafi's army have fallen back from Brega and now Ras Lanuf.

Yesterday's battle only took a few hours. The rebels came into town in the late afternoon. And by the early evening, it was mostly over. This morning, though, planes sent by Gadhafi bombed Ras Lanuf. NPR witnessed one strike that sent smoke and sand into the air over the desert. The large oil refinery here, though, was untouched.

Standing at a rebel checkpoint wearing olive green fatigues, Lameen al-Mohashash says this is not the end of the fight.

Mr. LAMEEN AL-MOHASHASH: (Through translator) We are blocking the runway because we are afraid Gadhafi might fly his troops to counterattack. But we are gaining ground step by step.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing at a checkpoint here in the town of Ras Lanuf. And in front of me stretches a road that heads west, and signs of the pitched battle that took place here litter the roadside, burned cars and bits of debris. Rebel soldiers have been firing in the air and leaving here in huge convoys heading west. This is a rebel army on the move.

Ahead of them lies Gadhafi's hometown, the stronghold of Sirte. If they conquer that, the next stop is the capital Tripoli. But Sirte is a major obstacle, heavily reinforced with Gadhafi's troops and loyalists.

Juma'a al-Fardawi is a policeman in Sirte. We reached him by phone. He says there are rumors that 20 army officers were killed for refusing to fire on the rebels in the battle for Ras Lanuf. He says the people in the community are divided and afraid.

Mr. JUMA'A AL-FARDAWI: (Through translator) The tribes in Sirte do not want to fight with the rebels. People have barricaded themselves in their homes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Ras Lanuf, rebel fighters loaded boxes of ammunition that fleeing Gadhafi forces left behind onto trucks to take to the frontline. The men here, though, do not lack for weaponry. Many carry SA M-7s, a slim surface-to-air missile, slung over their shoulders. It's unclear if they know how to fire them.

At a funeral today, five people were being buried, killed in the battle in Ras Lanuf, hailed as martyrs. The imam at the mosque prayed over the dead, and exhorted the living to battle.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May God give you strength to fight the infidel. Let your enemies be few and their deaths be many, he says.

Mr. MUFTAH HAMDAN AYAT: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There was little consolation, though, for the families of those who are being killed in the fighting. Muftah Hamdan Ayat's 26-year-old cousin was shot in the chest and arm. He had also fought in Brega earlier in the week, but he was killed yesterday in Ras Lanuf.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the late afternoon in Ras Lanuf, a group of young men burned a poster of Moammar Gadhafi and chanted: Where is the house of the curly haired man? Advance, advance and you will see it. They shot into the air and gave a battle cry of God is great.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.