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As Misrata Battles, Where Is Libya's Conflict Headed?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Libya today, the besieged city of Misrata is under attack from troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. A spokesman for the opposition army tells the Arab television network Al-Jazeera that at least six people have been killed and 47 others wounded in shelling by Gadhafi's army. Misrata is the last major rebel stronghold in western Libya; that part of the country is largely controlled by Gadhafi's forces.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Tripoli. Hello, Lourdes.


HANSEN: What can you tell us about the situation in Misrata?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The city is encircled. It contains civilians, many who are living with little food and water and are exposed to the elements, and badly supplied rebels whose advantage is they know the streets of the city. This is gritty, brutal urban warfare. From rebels that I've spoken to, Gadhafi's forces are shelling civilian areas - we are talking grad missiles, mortar fire, tank fire.

A few days ago came the first reports of cluster bombs, which are banned by international law for use in civilian areas. The rebels say a bread line was hit recently. And today, a dairy factory; almost every day there are mass funerals taking place.

We spoke to a Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, a doctor who came from Misrata yesterday. He said the hospitals are overwhelmed there. The hospitals are having to discharge patients prematurely because they continue to get more patients coming in. And the hospitals simply don't have enough room or resources to care for so many. The situation is dire.

HANSEN: Is the government in Tripoli saying anything?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have been denying everything. We had a general come and speak with us here last night, saying the cluster bombs had been used by the rebels, even though they fell over rebel-controlled territory. And they say that they've been acting in self-defense and are not using heavy weapons against the city, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The MFS doctor that we spoke to told us that while he was there, in rebel-held territory, the city was constantly being shelled.

HANSEN: Is it possible for you to be able to assess the effect of the NATO bombing campaign so far?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's hard to know. And cities like Misrata, the government forces have adapted. I've been there twice now with the Libyan government and you could see the evolution. The first time I was there, the army was still running around in military vehicles. You could see tanks. The second time, they were using civilian vehicles and some of the artillery was hidden in the garages of houses and shops. And we've seen that across the country.

The army here is spread out. They now know what to expect from the NATO bombing campaign. They are in and among the civilian population. And NATO doesn't want mass civilian casualties, so its having to be extremely careful. So how much Gadhafi's military has been degraded is an open question.

HANSEN: Lourdes, you are one of the few reporters to cover both the east and the west of Libya. Can you tell where the conflict is going?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this is a country that's pretty homogenous. The east and the west are united by family links, by tribal links, their one religion and sect. I've been in Tripoli now for almost a month and I can get still very little sense of the real hopes and fears of the population at large. This part of the country is ruled with an iron fist and it is completely controlled by fear.

There've been thousands of arrests here. Protests have ended in Tripoli because of brutal tactics employed here. Many shops are shuttered. The city is edgy. It's eerie. But the main message I get here is that Gadhafi will cling to power no matter what, even if he brings the country down with him.

The east has its own problems. People are now talking about partition of the country. That is some ways away, there's still bitter fighting going on. But whatever happens, the international community is going to be involved here for a long time to come, either militarily or in a peacetime capacity. Libya is just not going to go away.

HANSEN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Tripoli. Stay safe. Thank you, Lourdes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.