Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime has launched a counter-offensive in the attempt to retake several cities captured by opposition forces in a popular uprising that began Feb. 17. Gaddafi’s forces are attacking opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, fighter planes and tanks in several cities, including Bin Jawad, Tobruk, Ras Lanuf and Misurata. Meanwhile, the United Nations is launching an appeal to help 600,000 people within Libya who are expected to need humanitarian aid. We go to Benghazi to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime has launched a counter-offensive to take back several cities captured by opposition forces in a popular uprising that began February 17th. Gaddafi’s forces are attacking opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, fighter planes and tanks in several cities, including Bin Jawad, Tobruk, Ras Lanuf and Misurata. There are conflicting reports about the capture and recapture of several strategic towns. Casualty figures are unconfirmed, but Al Jazeera reports dozens have been killed.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is launching an appeal to help 600,000 people within Libya who are expected to need humanitarian aid. The U.N.’s latest figures show nearly 200,000 people have fled the country since the fighting began. That number is expected to double.
For more, we go to Libya to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat. She joins us on the telephone from Benghazi.
Anjali, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe what’s happening in Benghazi right now?
ANJALI KAMAT: Hi, Amy. I’m in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the eastern part of Libya. This is the headquarters of the anti-Gaddafi forces. The mood here is quite different than the mood last week. It’s no longer one of euphoria. There’s a very clear sense that this is an armed rebellion; any hopes of a peaceful revolution have long faded. One of the signs I saw in several places in the square reads, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." Everyone realizes they’re in for a very long battle with Gaddafi and his heavily armed forces.
And over the weekend, the rebel authorities formed a national transitional council of Libya. It’s declared itself the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. They have representatives from all the major cities in the country. They’re seeking international recognition. I believe that France has recognized their authority. Today, Libya’s former ambassador to India — he was one of the first Libyan diplomats to speak out against Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters — he’s in Cairo meeting with members of the Arab League, attempting to negotiate some form of recognition for this transitional authority from the Arab states.
Here in Benghazi, there is no fighting going on. Most of the armed battles you described, those in the east, are taking place along what’s really a shifting front line about a hundred to 200 miles [inaudible] to Benghazi. It’s in the set of strategic oil and port towns. They’re between Benghazi and the Gaddafi stronghold of Surt. Every day, more and more rebel fighters are moving west toward Surt. They [inaudible] the forces withdrew from Bin Jawad [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: Anjali, Anjali, we’re having a little trouble understanding you. The sound is very digital. If you could speak a little more slowly.
ANJALI KAMAT: Sure. So, every day there’s more fighters moving westwards toward Surt, which is the Gaddafi stronghold in the center of the country. And today there are reports that rebel forces withdrew from Bin Jawad, and there are reports of renewed fighting and an aerial campaign by Gaddafi forces in Ras Lanuf. Yesterday about eight rebels were killed in Bin Jawad. There are some reports that at least some of the injuries on the rebel side are self-inflicted, because these forces are largely groups of untrained and poorly equipped young men who are volunteering by the hundreds to fight for their country.
The [inaudible] attacked Benghazi. It’s not clear whether this was an accident or an attack that took place late Friday night. At an ammunitions depot near the Benghazi airport late Friday evening, there was a massive explosion there. There’s some reports that this might have been caused by pro-Gaddafi forces, an explosion — a car that drove in and caused — and sort of exploded. There were a number people who died there. We went, visited the explosion site. There’s damage all around for miles, windows shattered. You know, people here are definitely very nervous about what’s coming next. They’re trying desperately to regroup and hold on to what they have.
AMY GOODMAN: Anjali, very quickly, if you could set up the piece we’re about to play, your conversations with people trying to leave Libya.
ANJALI KAMAT: So, Libya, like many oil-rich countries in the region, has a very large migrant labor force. It’s nearly one-and-a-half to two million people, mostly from Africa and Asia. During this uprising and heavy violence from Gaddafi’s forces, it’s natural that most of the migrant population has been trying to leave and desperate to leave. But one of the tragedies of what’s happened is, with Gaddafi’s use of mercenaries to attack Libyans, many of these mercenaries have come from other African countries, a lot of them from sub-Saharan Africa. So there has been this dangerous logic of racism that’s been perpetrated, as well, where anyone who is perceived to be from sub-Saharan Africa is sometimes identified as being a mercenary. So a lot of the workers from sub-Saharan Africa have gotten caught up in this violence in a rather unfortunate and tragic way.
And I spoke to some of those workers who are fleeing at the border, who are trying to flee at the port. There’s also several workers from Bangladesh. One part of the story is a lot of the workers from slightly wealthier countries have been able to leave whereas those from poorer countries are still waiting to leave, because their countries have been unable to send ships to get them out.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before we go to that piece, Anjali, this issue of a no-fly zone that is being talked about, the country, leadership in the United States, clearly divided. What are people saying in Benghazi?
ANJALI KAMAT: I think most people on the ground, as well as the authorities of the rebel forces, are very clear that they don’t want any form of foreign intervention. They want to see this Libyan revolution take place entirely with — by the Libyans themselves. They want to achieve this victory. They want to oust Gaddafi. However, they do appreciate the fact that Gaddafi has incredibly heavy weapons that he’s using against his own people, and I think there’s, frankly, quite a bit of division, even on the national council, about whether or not to support a no-fly zone.
Yesterday there were reports that there were about eight British SAS troops, Special [Air] Service forces, who had landed, who had been parachuted into Libya without any permission from the rebel government. So, the rebel authorities are very upset with this. They say, "Look, if you want to send a diplomatic mission to speak with us, you have to go through the proper channels. We don’t accept any form of military — you know, any form of intervention, foreign intervention. We do respect the sovereignty of Libya." So they sent this mission back to the U.K. The same thing with, you know, reports that the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, is — his offer to mediate. The rebel authorities say they haven’t heard anything directly from the Venezuelan government. They’re willing to negotiate with foreign governments, willing to accept certain forms of foreign intervention, if it’s not military intervention and only if they agree to the rebels’ demands, which is that Gaddafi must step down.
AMY GOODMAN: Anjali Kamat, speaking to us from Benghazi, Libya. Anjali, be safe. We’re going to go to break and then bring her piece to you about the migrants who are trying to leave Libya. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.