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Libyan Rebels Regain Key City After Airstrikes

Libyan rebels celebrate atop a captured tank after taking the city  of Ajdabiya.
Anja Niedringhaus
/
AP
Libyan rebels celebrate atop a captured tank after taking the city of Ajdabiya.

Libyan rebels regained control of the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya on Saturday after international airstrikes crippled Moammar Gadhafi's forces, in the first major turnaround for an uprising that once appeared on the verge of defeat.

Drivers honked in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired their guns into the air and danced on burned-out tanks that littered the road. Inside a building that had served as makeshift barracks for pro-Gadhafi forces, hastily discarded uniforms were piled on the floor.

"Without the planes we couldn't have done this. Gadhafi's weapons are at a different level than ours," said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya. "With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing."

Western air power made all the difference, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from the outskirts of Ajdabiya. "They were stuck here at the edge, and I count about 10 tanks and armored personnel carriers from Gadhafi's forces that are now turned over, burning and destroyed — and it took allied air power to destroy that."

Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade in his hands, said the city's eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations.

"All of Ajdabiya is free," he said.

The Role Of The West

Ajdabiya's sudden fall to Gadhafi's troops on March 16 spurred the swift U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader's military.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Gadhafi's forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.

On Friday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition's eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misurata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi's siege.

The U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press on Friday, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya," but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. "We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."

Instead, the focus was on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misurata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

What Next For The Rebel Mission?

On Saturday, rebels in Ajdabiya hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of anti-aircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower. Westervelt reported seeing multiple-launch rocket systems being pulled through town by rebels, reportedly on their way to a new front line.

"The big question now," Westervelt said, "is can they learn any tactical lessons from the last engagement, or are they just going to charge ahead without communication, without support without a plan without proper weapons?"

Some rebel commanders say they need to regroup and plan, Westervelt reported, but not all are in agreement. "Some rebels are already pouring ahead, they say past Ajdabiya," he reports, "but that's just what they did just a few weeks ago when they stretched out their lines. They didn't have a plan and it backfired on them, because the slightly better-trained Gadhafi forces easily pushed them back."

Meanwhile, Westervelt said, as a family loaded into a passing pickup truck flashes victory signs, civilians are beginning to return to the city. "They say they're nervous, but they want to get back to their house and their home and see what's left of it."

Some rebel forces here say civilians are foolish for rushing back into the city so soon because it's not fully secure. But rebels are also not doing much to stop them from returning, Westervelt reports.

A Victory For The Coalition

The turnaround in Ajdabiya is a boost for President Obama, who has faced complaints from lawmakers from both parties that he has not sought their input about the U.S. role in the war or explained with enough clarity the U.S. goals and exit strategy. Obama is scheduled to give a speech on Libya to the nation Monday.

Even while some rebels celebrate their win in the city  of Ajdabiya, others are already moving ahead past the city to the next battle.
/ Eric Westervelt/NPR
/
Eric Westervelt/NPR
Even while some rebels celebrate their win in the city of Ajdabiya, others are already moving ahead past the city to the next battle.

"The United States should not and cannot intervene every time there's a crisis somewhere in the world," Obama said in a radio and Internet address Saturday. But with Gadhafi threatening "a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region ... it's in our national interest to act. And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times."

Protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces has been the stated mission of the international action since the beginning, although some countries have offered variations on that theme at times.

Elsewhere, Libyans Eye Each Other With Suspicion

A resident of Zwara, a former rebel holding in the west, said the regime has the town firmly in its grip again. He said pro-Gadhafi forces are dragging away people there and in the town of Zawiya who participated in protests that began Feb. 15 and were inspired by the uprisings that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

"They have lists of demonstrators and videos and so on and they are seeking them out. We are all staying home and waiting for this to be over," said the resident, who did not want to be named because he feared for his safety if discovered. He said a friend who helped coordinate checkpoints when the opposition held the city was taken away Friday.

"They came with four or five cars with four people in each one, all of them armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs. They surrounded the house and took him out," he said, adding that the whole thing was seen by a common friend.

He said neighbors now fear each other.

"During the demonstrations, many people contributed to the community, doing anything they could. This shows that the regime has collaborators to give them names. It's a Big Brother type of show, so they can come in and take whomever they want."

Rebels Battling For Misurata

While the rebel forces celebrated the fall of Ajdabiya today, they say the situation for fellow rebels in the Western city of Misurata is grim. Pitched battles and government shelling continued today, witnesses say, and there's almost no water or electricity.

Simon Brooks with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya says the Gadhafi regime continues to block access to Misrata in violation of the laws of armed conflict.

"That access needs to happen," says Brooks. "And it needs to happen today. We have the right to say we have a role here and we wish to act."

With reporting from NPR's Eric Westervelt near Ajdabiya. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires