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Inside War-Torn Libya: As NATO Intensifies Air Strikes, Rebels Struggle to Break Gaddafi’s Control of Libya

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Anti-Gaddafi rebel fighters in Libya have called on NATO to offer them more assistance to try to end the military stalemate in the country. NATO patrols and air strikes are still trying to break the hold of forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Pro-government troops have been shelling the port area in Misurata, the only city in western Libya that is in rebel control. There are reports Gaddafi’s forces are using human shields in the city. Leila Fadel, Washington Post Cairo bureau chief, joins us from Benghazi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Libya, where anti-Gaddafi rebel fighters in Libya have called on NATO to offer them more assistance to try to end the military stalemate in the country. All across Libya, NATO patrols and air strikes are still trying to break the hold of forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi. Pro-government troops have been shelling the port area of Misurata, the only city in western Libya held by rebels. There are reports Gaddafi’s forces are using human shields in the city.

A United Nations team is due to arrive in Tripoli to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Libya since the start of the conflict in February. The team was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council following the Libyan government’s crackdown on protesters.

Earlier this week, Italy announced it will begin using its Air Force to bomb military targets in Libya in the latest escalation by NATO forces. Italy had previously said it would not take part in NATO-led air strikes, citing its former 40-year colonial rule of the country.

Meanwhile, during talks in Ethiopia, the African Union said NATO should focus on the mandate of the U.N. resolution.

RAMTANE LAMAMRA: We call on the — for the fighting to stop and for the air strikes to avoid targeting senior officials of Libya, as well as — as well as infrastructures of the country. There is a need to implement the Resolutions 1970 and 1973 in accordance with what they meant to achieve, and that is the protection of civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the latest developments, we go to Benghazi right now in eastern Libya, where we’re joined on the phone by Leila Fadel, the Washington Post bureau chief in Cairo. She has spent many weeks reporting from Libya.

Leila Fadel, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s very good to have you. I know it’s tough to keep this line going. Just describe what’s happening in Benghazi right now.

LEILA FADEL: Well, Benghazi, actually, is quite quiet, uncharacteristically. The east has relatively calmed in the last 10 days, with little to no fighting. I went to the hospital in Ajdabiya, which is pretty much the front line here in the east, yesterday, and the halls have been empty for 10 days, no injuries. The fighters say they have commands to stop and hold their position, which is completely different than, of course, Misurata.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe who is there and what the feeling is in Benghazi, who the rebels are that you’ve been speaking to, what they are asking for.

LEILA FADEL: In Benghazi, I mean, the opposition here is — as you know, of the Council, many are lawyers and judges and academics. The fighters are a diverse group of young men, older men, teachers, engineers, some who believe they’re fighting in God’s name, some who feel that this is the way Libya should be freed. But the thing that sort of unites everyone here is the idea that if they do — if they are defeated, they will all be killed or punished for what they have started.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us a little about Misurata? You’ve been reporting on it for weeks now.

LEILA FADEL: Yeah, I spent a week in Misurata, and I would say it’s a — it’s quite a dire situation there. They are a city that is under siege. Their only lifeline is the sea. The port has been under heavy fire the last two days in an attempt — according to the rebel forces there, they say it’s an attempt to cut off their only lifeline to aid, to humanitarian aid, to get out of the city. Many migrant workers are trying to get out of the city. Families are trying to get out of the city. But it also is their line for weapon supplies that are coming from Benghazi.

AMY GOODMAN: You went into the hospital there. Describe what you saw.

LEILA FADEL: The hospital was — basically, they have set up a tent outside the main hospital, called Hikma Hospital, where they evacuated to because the larger trauma clinic came under heavy fire and is uninhabitable now. And it is a constant rotation of the wounded and the dead being brought into that tent, treated. Doctors say they have to choose to — whether to treat or not to treat injuries, because they don’t have enough space and doctors to focus on every case.

I saw a lot of civilian deaths and injuries in the hospital — eight-year-old children, four-year-old children, who had been shot in the head. I saw lots of shrapnel wounds. For families who were sitting at home, the fire has been quite indiscriminate, tank shells into apartment buildings, rocket attacks into apartment buildings. A huge amount of internal displacement, because families are searching for a place that’s safe in Misurata, and so far it’s been really difficult to find that place.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why Misurata, why the people rose up there?

LEILA FADEL: In my conversations with people in Misurata — you know, it’s a very wealthy city, and it’s known for trade. You found among the fighters doctors and biologists and economists and engineers, people who had two to three homes and cars. Many of them said that they couldn’t handle the killings that were happening in the east. The huge — the bigger crackdown started in the east here in Benghazi. And so, Misurata rose up. And now that they have risen up, they feel they can’t turn back. As I said before, they know that there is a huge punishment in store if they do succumb, as they saw happen in Zawiyah.

Their resistance is quite organized, actually, compared to the east, and I don’t know if that’s because, unlike the east, where you can retreat towards the border, there is nowhere for anybody to retreat there. So they’ve been able to set up a city where they have emergency lanes for ambulances and rebel fighter trucks. They have units that are somewhat organized, with combat doctors. They’ve set up berms and barriers to try to protect them from shelling. But they’ve also really incurred a lot of destruction on their city in order to save it.

But everybody here speaks of the same sort of psychological prison that they’ve been in for 41 years, that everything has been about one man, a personality cult, where they can’t think or say anything that they believe without being jailed or disappearing. And so, I think that really unites most fighters who — and most opposition that have risen up against Muammar Gaddafi here.

AMY GOODMAN: Leila Fadel, it’s interesting, when we’re covering other uprisings in the Middle East, we’re talking about the pro-democracy activists; immediately in Libya, we talked about the rebels. Why? Why the difference? And can you talk about what their background is, how young people are, if they were fighters before?

LEILA FADEL: Mm-hmm. Well, I think in the beginning we covered this as we did all the other revolutions in the Middle East. But this quickly became an armed conflict. But these were not people who walked around with weapons and RPGs. These were people who had never picked up a weapon in their life. But the killing and the suppression here was to a degree that we didn’t see in Egypt and we didn’t see in Tunisia. And even though the military defected, some of the military defected, especially in the east, and Abdul Fatah Younis defected, the military here has been gutted. It doesn’t have ammunition. It doesn’t have the supplies. All of that goes to what they call the Katibas, which are basically Muammar Gaddafi’s militias, which he has supplied with the best weaponry and training. And those are the forces that they are fighting here.

And these groups — I mean, most of the fighters that I’ve spoken to, especially in Misurata, have never fought before. You do have a small contingent of people who have fought in the name of — who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, because they believed that it was wrong for foreigners to invade Muslim countries and kill Muslims. I did profile one fighter who spoke about his time in Iraq. He talked about how he didn’t believe in the system, the belief system of al-Qaeda, but he did believe that foreign troops should not invade Muslim countries. And he would welcome here in — he wanted air strikes. At the time, there was no-fly zone — there was no no-fly zone, and there were no air strikes going on, but he wanted that. The only thing he didn’t want was troops on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Leila, how are you keeping yourself safe? I mean, many journalists have been kidnapped, among them the New York Times crew, Anthony Shadid, most recently Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, Mohammed Nabbous, a Libyan reporter, and we don’t know all the Libyans who have been killed. How are you keeping yourself safe?

LEILA FADEL: Well, Benghazi is now relatively safe. There have been no incursions by Gaddafi forces in Benghazi since the air strikes began last month. The front lines in the east are dangerous. Many journalists have been taken. I try not to pass the fighters. You also have to be careful with the fighters themselves. Like I said, they have never shot off weapons before, and sometimes they hurt themselves, because they don’t know how to use them. So you try to — you know, as a writer, I don’t have to get a perfect shot. You try to speak to people near the fighting, in the fighting, but keep yourself safe.

In Misurata, unfortunately, it’s very difficult to keep yourself safe. You have to take risks because you want to tell the story of what’s happening there. And that claimed the lives of friends of mine, my colleagues obviously, Chris and Tim. And that’s because it is so indiscriminate. You don’t know where a Grad rocket is going to drop. And speaking to people in Misurata, they said all of Misurata is a front line. So even if you’re at the most dangerous point or in a place where you believe is safe, you are still in danger there.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, Ali Hassan al-Jaber, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was killed in an ambush near where you are, near Benghazi. Finally, the U.N., the significance of this group that’s going in, a fact-finding mission to investigate on both sides. I mean, Human Rights Watch, of course, has condemned Gaddafi forces, but also rebels planting land mines.

LEILA FADEL: Yes. I think it would be difficult for anyone operating in Tripoli to get the larger picture of what’s happening, because the government has been so successful, at least with journalists, in trying to mitigate the message. And in order to operate in Tripoli, you know, my colleagues who are in Tripoli have to sneak around, sneak out of this hotel, in order to try to find out what’s actually happening in Tripoli. And much of what is happening in Tripoli, we don’t know, because the government has such control there. So I think that’s very difficult. The NATO role here in the east and also in Misurata has been welcomed, but also condemned for not doing enough to stop the siege on Misurata and also to stop Gaddafi forces in the east.

AMY GOODMAN: And the feeling of Italy bombing Libya, which has had this history of colonial rule and has killed so many in the past?

LEILA FADEL: Mm-hmm. Honestly, I think that, at this point, the opposition generally isn’t being picky. They’re taking whoever will come in and try to help them. This is a game of survival for them, and they don’t have the time to train up their forces. They understand that their military cannot win this, because it’s not a military. It’s a group of guys with guns who are trying to come under some type of command. And so, I haven’t heard large-scale complaints about the Italian intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: Leila Fadel, thank you so much for being with us, Washington Post bureau chief, usually in Cairo, now in Benghazi, where she has spent many weeks reporting from Libya. Thank you so much, and please be safe.

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