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Fighting In Libya Draws Toward Stalemate


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is away this week. I'm David Greene.

In western Libya, there are reports that troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are targeting civilians in a fight to gain control of Misrata. That coastal city is vital for the rebel forces. Losing it to the government could be a sign that the conflict in Libya is approaching something close to a stalemate.

In the east, there are conflicting reports this morning about who's in control of the oil port at Brega and rebels are regrouping after a NATO airstrike late Friday night accidentally killed more than a dozen opposition fighters. Rebel leaders said the incident was unfortunate but they still welcome, in fact they desperately need, NATO's help.

To talk about all of this, we've reached our correspondents on the ground in Libya. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in the capital Tripoli. Hi, Lulu.


GREENE: And Eric Westervelt is in the eastern city of Benghazi. Eric, thanks for being here.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Lulu, let's start with you. You were actually one of the first Western journalists to reach Misrata, the coastal city in the west, recently. What is the latest you're hearing and remind us why that city is so important to both sides.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We were taken to Misrata this past week by the government in an attempt to show that they had the city under control, and what we saw instead was something completely different - raging gun battles, a city that was being bitterly contested. The small part we were able to see was utterly destroyed - empty buildings riddled with bullets.

And the news today is no better. Rebels there say a mortar hit a makeshift medical facility. Electricity, food, medical supplies are all lacking. It's an increasingly desperate situation. They say the only way in or out of the city is by boat for the people trapped there.

Misrata is the third-largest city in the country. It used to be very affluent, but now it's all but surrounded by Gadhafi's forces who are attacking it. This is house-to-house, street-to-street urban combat with a civilian population still inside the city.

GREENE: And Eric, update us on this airstrike, if you can. It sounds like NATO accidentally hit rebel forces. I mean, rebel forces had a lot of challenges as it was. It sounds like this is the last they needed.

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly. We're told by rebel fighters that late Friday night some fighters were trying to move forward toward Brega, this small oil terminal town. It's really been the frontline this week, David. And a NATO aircraft was overhead and some of the rebels apparently fired a heavy machine gun into the air. Why? We have no idea. Were they scared? Were they confused? What happened? Was it celebratory fire? We don't know. And then aircraft blasted the rebel convoy.

And government officials and witnesses say 13 fighters were killed and some seven wounded. And it's been interesting that, you know, frankly there's not much anger, publicly anyway, over this incident. Fighters we spoke with near the front yesterday basically said, look, mistakes happen; it's too bad. And, you know, the provisional government here called it unfortunate but is sticking to its line that, you know, the bigger picture, as they put it, is that NATO will save Libyan lives in the end by continuing to knock out Colonel Gadhafi's loyalist troops.

GREENE: Lulu, you're in Tripoli and you've reported on these sometimes-bizarre press conferences with government officials in the middle of the night. The news over the past week, I mean, the foreign minister leaves the Libyan government, there are reports of an aide to Gadhafi's son in London talking about exit strategy. I mean, as that's been taking place, has the government's message changed at all in Tripoli?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, quite frankly. I mean, you were here. You'll remember what this is like and it's very difficult to get a clear read from the government here about what they're feeling and thinking. Certainly after Moussa Koussa's resignation, which they, of course, initially denied categorically was happening, there was a sense of nervousness here, there was a fear about how many other senior officials might follow him.

But that has essentially dropped away. And what we're seeing here now a reaffirmation of basically Moammar Gadhafi's defiance in the face of all this. He says that he is going to remain and has taken the press here to innumerable pro-Gadhafi marches, where people are brought in to show their support to him.

And so we have had no indication that this is a regime that is in any way, shape or form teetering. In fact, when you drive around the city here, what you see is a lot of checkpoints, very quiet tension on the streets certainly, long gas lines, people suffering because of the embargo, but no sign at all that the protesters are out on the street or that Gadhafi's government is losing control at all.

GREENE: And let me just ask you both briefly; we've been hearing this term cease-fire thrown around sometimes by both sides. Some Western analysts have been suggesting we're getting close to perhaps something of a stalemate that could last for a long time in this country.

Lulu, in Tripoli, I mean, is there any sense the Libyan government, the Gadhafi regime, could live with an arrangement where over a long period of time the rebels control the east?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think they are also beginning to understand that there is a limit to what they can achieve in the east. Certainly, when they push towards Benghazi before the NATO bombing, they felt that they might be able to take the east. That simply is no longer obviously going to be the case because of the role NATO is playing.

There is a sense that they can live with it. I think that's why they're pushing on Misrata so hard. They want to have control of every square inch of the west, to be able to say the west is under Gadhafi's control; it is loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, and I think that's where they're going with this now.

GREENE: And, Eric, what's the situation in the east? I mean, could you see the rebels living with some sort of stalemate, as Lulu said?

WESTERVELT: What's interesting they're very defiant. They keep saying, you know, no, we refuse to even entertain that idea, despite really the mounting evidence, David, on the ground that they may be heading to a de facto division and partition. I mean, they insist, look, that'll never happen. We want a united Libya with Tripoli as its capital.

But really the facts on the ground look very, very different. And they may have to face that reality soon and started to talk about that publicly, at least in the short-term. The country may indeed be divided.

GREENE: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt, who's talking to us from eastern Libya, the city of Benghazi, and NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting in the capital Tripoli. Thank you both for being here. Be safe.


WESTERVELT: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.