McClatchy Newspapers correspondent reporting in Brega, Libya.
foreign affairs editor at The Observer (U.K.) reporting from Tripoli, Libya.
Forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi have launched fresh air strikes on Libyan towns captured by anti-government opposition in a popular uprising over the past two weeks. Gaddafi has lost control of the eastern half of Libya, and thousands of protesters are thought to have been killed by Gaddafi’s forces. We get reports from two journalists on the ground in Libya: McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef in Brega, and The Observer’s Peter Beaumont in Tripoli. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have launched fresh air strikes on towns captured by opposition forces in a popular uprising over the past two weeks. Bombs were dropped on the oil-port town of Brega, a day after clashes there left up to 14 people dead. Air strikes today also targeted the nearby town of Ajdabiyah.
Gaddafi has lost control of the eastern half of Libya over the past two weeks. The death toll in Libya is unknown, but thousands of protesters are thought to have been killed by Gaddafi’s forces. In a televised speech on Wednesday, Gaddafi said thousands of Libyans would die if Western forces intervened.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Al Jazeera is reporting Gaddafi has accepted an offer from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to mediate the crisis. Gaddafi reportedly spoke to Chávez and agreed in principle to a mediation plan.
For more, we go to Libya to Nancy Youssef. She’s a correspondent for McClatchy. She’s in Brega right now.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nancy. Tell us what’s happening in Brega.
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, right now we’re at the hospital, where we’re trying to confirm the details of what happened in Brega. It was such a state of confusion yesterday. They say here they had 12 dead and 28 injured. Among those killed, they said, were two Gaddafi soldiers who were treated here and eventually died here.
They are starting to fortify areas around Brega, because they anticipate more attacks, as are the residents in Ajdabiyah. And they seem to be a bit emboldened by their success yesterday. From their perspective, they took on an air force and an organized army, and with a few ragtag forces they were able to fend off the offensive. So there is a sense of confidence here, but also anticipation about what’s next.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Nancy, how extensive was the bombing that accompanied this assault on the town?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I’ve only been able to see — I’ve seen four or five huge bomb craters in — between Ajdabiyah and Brega, so I’m looking for them now, actually. We’ve seen two at the university and one on the outskirts of Ajdabiyah. So we’re trying to get a count of it, and also determine who launched them, because some of the forces here are boasting that the rebel forces have confiscated an airplane. But, of course, we haven’t been able to confirm that. So, we’re trying to figure that out now. But right now we think at least four were launched by Gaddafi forces in this area.
AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Youssef, can you explain who the Gaddafi forces are?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, that’s a great question. The residents are alleging that a lot of them are mercenaries from Niger and Chad, who Gaddafi is flying in to defend him. In addition to the army, Gaddafi maintained a number of personal brigades that were really trained — better trained and better equipped than the 40,000 in the army for precisely this kind of situation. And so, from what we can tell, it’s a mix of some of those brigade members and mercenaries, sort of organizing together to launch this offensive. But it’s a little unclear. A lot of this is according to the residents, and so we’re trying to find that out, as well. But it seems to be a mix of mercenaries and some of these brigade forces.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And these mercenaries, there have been some reports over the years that Gaddafi had created, in essence, his own form of the old French Foreign Legion, only it was Gaddafi’s foreign legion. How large a force is this, and how organized has it been over the years?
AMY GOODMAN: Nancy?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Some of them are more brutal than others, and — purportedly, and they are by far better armed and better trained than the 40,000 in the regular army. And that’s obvious. As you go around to these barracks, particularly in the east here, where he was already suspicious of residents and seemed to have given them the least amount of equipment and training, and you can tell that. The weapons they’ve confiscated are old and broken. In fact, yesterday, as they were getting ready to head into Brega, we saw rebels trying to grease and fix the rocket launchers that they had confiscated. So, it’s clear that the mercenary forces and the personal brigade forces are far better armed and trained than the rebel forces. So many of them are former soldiers themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. The rebel forces, Nancy Youssef, is it accurate even to call them "rebel forces"? Are they simply the population?
NANCY YOUSSEF: They are the population, in large measure. A lot of them have training in the army; a lot of them don’t. What was interesting yesterday is there were people who showed up without a weapon at all, because they don’t own one. And we saw people with meat cleavers and even the rods that they use for shish kebabs, anything they could get their hands on to defend the town. It is a mix. It’s hard to get at the structure of it. In Benghazi, which is the sort of temporary capital of the liberated east until, they say, Tripoli falls, they formed a military council to form some kind organization. But when you asked residents yesterday, "What brought you out here?" a lot of them just heard the news and came out on their own. Nobody asked them to come; it was all initiative on their own.
AMY GOODMAN: And the people coming in from neighboring cities?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes. So, Brega is a pretty small town, and the next biggest one is Benghazi, which is a two-hour-and-45-minute drive from Brega. And in between, there’s a town called Ajdabiyah, and that town is about 45 minutes away from Brega. And so, you saw hundreds of cars at the gate at the edge of Ajdabiyah meeting up, and they would all cheer as a car went through with arms en route to Brega, and they’d shoot in the air. And this went on all day yesterday. And so, in between each of those towns is vast desert. So people traveled from pretty far. And we heard reports of weapons coming from as far as Tobruk, which is all the way near the Egyptian border. And so, there was a real mounting of forces and equipment and people as soon as the news came out that Brega was under attack.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you see any women and children in Brega? And the sense of casualties?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, we’re just at the hospital now. They said that a child was among those killed. I’m looking at the list now, and they say a 12-year-old. We haven’t — that’s on their list right now. They didn’t have — they had women, they said, that were used in front of the university as a human shield by the Gaddafi forces at one point. There was a family that was held. You see women at the hospital working here. But we haven’t seen any women injured directly from the fighting yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Youssef, we want to thank you for being with us, correspondent for McClatchy, in Brega right now. Thanks so much for joining us. Please keep safe.
We now go to Tripoli, where we’re joined by Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor at The London Observer.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter. Describe Tripoli right now.
PETER BEAUMONT: The funny thing is, and despite what you read, actually, Tripoli is very, very calm. I’m in the city center. There’s lots of traffic. I mean, there are queues at food shops and some of the banks. I mean, the problems here are the ones you don’t tend to see so much. I went out last night to Tajura, which is one of the big working-class neighborhoods out on the east of the city, where there’s currently a clampdown going on of the people who were involved in the opposition demonstrations. There seem to be nightly roundups of people who’ve been identified as going on these demonstrations. And while a lot of the city feels calm, these areas are very, very fearful right now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Peter, could you tell us about the latest appearance of Gaddafi, the three-hour-long speech that he gave to both international reporters and some of his supporters in Tripoli?
PETER BEAUMONT: Yeah, I was out there yesterday. I mean, it was a lot less hotheaded than some of the previous — a couple of the previous speeches he had made. I mean, what he was clearly trying to set out to do was press a lot of buttons with not just people who are his supporters, but people who might be his supporters. I mean, he — despite a lot of the rhetoric that you might expect that was quite bellicose, you know, studded in this long speech were, you know, what I’d call quite a lot of goodies. I mean, he was making an offer of increasing financial aid for people who wanted to build houses. He made a nod towards things like free speech and a constitution, which his son Saif al-Islam has been trying to push on him. So, I mean, it was very, very carefully produced. On the one hand, he was appealing to nationalistic sentiment, saying, you know, this intervention will create another Vietnam here, while on the other hand, he was talking very much to some of the concerns of Libyans and some of the Libyans who are actually opposing him, trying to say, well, maybe, you know, he should be doing something slightly different, although whether people will believe him after all these years is the biggest question.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And didn’t he also offer billions in additional government aid to the rebel areas that are now — have slipped from his control?
PETER BEAUMONT: He bowed off with an amnesty, which he’d hinted at before, but, I mean, he spoke twice yesterday in this long speech about an amnesty for people who have taken up arms. I mean, the government line is that this aid has been on offer for a long. But I mean, essentially, what he was offering was $20 billion for infrastructure aid to Benghazi, if and when things calm down, there was some kind of reconciliation. But the truth is, I mean, people have heard promises before, and I’m not sure that the people listening in the east to this speech will put any credibility in it.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beaumont, right now you have minder. How do reporters function in Tripoli?
PETER BEAUMONT: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I had talked to friends who’ve spent a lot of time here before, who haven’t — and in previous cases, are not even able to leave the hotel. I mean, there are minders. They organize trips to places which are not always — well, the outcomes of those trips not always going as well as they’d like. In theory, you know, you’re not supposed to go anywhere without a minder, but, I mean, several of my colleagues have managed to go and do independent reporting. And I’ve managed to do some independent reporting myself.
I mean, one example is, we were taken on Sunday to Zawiyah, which is described as this kind of key opposition-held town about 30 kilometers from Tripoli. I mean, in fact, it’s only the center of the town that’s held by the opposition. And when we arrived there, we were told, you know, there’s guys with guns down there. And I don’t think they expected us to go, "Oh, really?" and then wander off and go and meet the guys with guns. And so, even though there’s control, I mean, it’s not as much as you’d expect. I mean, most days you get taken to these staged demonstrations. And you’ll be in this demonstration. Everyone’s cheering and sort of saying, you know, "God and Muammar is all that Libya needs." And then someone will come up and whisper in your ear and say, "Do you speak English? I want to have a word with you." And then, bizarrely, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a — [no audio]
AMY GOODMAN: Peter?
PETER BEAUMONT: — from someone who’s saying, "Actually, some of the people who are here, you know, actually are against him. They’ve just been paid." And so, I mean, it’s controlled, but like all things that try to control, you know, one finds one’s way around it.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, this news that Al Jazeera is reporting, Gaddafi has accepted an offer from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to mediate a solution to what’s happening, what do you understand about this?
PETER BEAUMONT: All I understand is that it’s already been rejected by the opposition leaders in the east. So, I mean, even — I mean, you know, there was a history of reasonably friendly relations between Hugo Chávez and Colonel Gaddafi, but I mean, you know, the mediation is only possible if the other party is prepared to be a part of that mediation. And right now, I don’t think there’s any possibility of that at all.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And is there any sense of the impact on the oil production in Libya? Obviously, some reports say that it’s down about 50 percent since the rebellion began. The possible impact on the government of the sharp reduction in oil revenues?
PETER BEAUMONT: Well, I mean, what we know so far is what we hear from government sources, who are pretty clear that this has had a massive impact. I don’t know what the exact figures are. We’re supposed to be getting a briefing from someone from the Ministry of Oil this evening. But, you know, they make absolutely clear that this is a very big problem. And one of the sort of implicit threats in the speech yesterday, and probably one of the more serious — seriously meant threats, was that if British and other companies pull out of Libya and pull out their staff out of Libya, then they will go and do deals with other people like China and India. And I think that’s a credible threat. I mean, they are feeling it. They are very, very bold that they would like the foreign workers to come back. And when you go around, I mean, this is a place that relied very, very heavily on foreign labor, especially Egyptian and Tunisians, and they have gone on. I mean, it’s been gutted of what was once a large part of its worker population. And, you know, for hotels, business, this is having a huge impact.
AMY GOODMAN: Two last questions. One, you were in Egypt, Tahrir Square. How does this compare? Would you — can you compare it to any phase of the uprising there?
PETER BEAUMONT: It’s so different. I mean, I actually started my journey off in Tunisia. So I went from Tunisia to Cairo, to Tahrir Square, and then went home for a couple of weeks and then came here. I mean, it feels different. In Cairo, it was absolutely clear that very large parts of the population were against the regime and felt prepared to come out. Here in Tripoli, in the capital, the difference is that there is a lot of support for the regime, and also, where there isn’t support for the regime, they don’t have sufficient sort of gravity, of numbers, to actually make an impact by coming out on the streets. And when we go out of Tripoli, I mean, you can see that it’s ringed by armor. I mean, I went out two days ago to a government-controlled town up the coast, and, you know, there were — at one stage, in a few kilometers, there were about 12 modern tanks from one of the personal brigades. There were six BM-21 Grad launchers pointing at Zawiyah, you know, and checkpoints everywhere, stopping cars going in and out of the city. And that’s the difference. I mean, Cairo, massive, 20 million people. When they came out, they made a real impact on what was going on. Here, we just haven’t seen the same thing in the capital.
AMY GOODMAN: And the no-fly zone, in 30 seconds, what it would mean, this debate over whether a no-fly zone should be imposed over Libya?
PETER BEAUMONT: I’m not one usually to agree with the U.S. defense secretaries, but I think he’s absolutely right in this case. I mean, for a no-fly zone to work would require multiple air strikes against all sorts of things, including air fields, radar sites, mobile anti-aircraft missile launchers. I mean, this would not be a small job. It will be very visible. And, you know, there’s a very, very strong possibility that this would actually unite some people behind Gaddafi who perhaps would not be united behind him and actually make the situation worse here.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beaumont, we want to thank you very much for being with us, foreign affairs editor at The Observer, speaking to us from Tripoli.