Shashank Bengali: Western rebels from the Berber tribe led by former army commanders
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Libya, as we speak, the rebels have taken the compound where Gaddafi and his sons were assumed to have been, but they don’t seem to be there now. The force that entered Tripoli, the rebel force, came from western Libya, not eastern Libya, where most of the attention has been centered around Benghazi. The western rebels we don’t know too much about. But Shashank Bengali, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was in western Libya in May and met some of those rebels. And he joins us now to talk about it. Thanks for joining us.
SHASHANK BENGALI, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: My pleasure.
JAY: So what were the circumstances? And what did you find when you were in western Libya?
BENGALI: Well, western Libya was closed off to reporters for much of the beginning the fighting. Eventually, the rebels took control of one of the border crossings from Tunisia. So I crossed over and got a glimpse of who these guys were. And they’re really much like the rebels in the east. They were civilians who had defected, you know, from their government jobs and gone to join the rebel army. But the difference was that they were led not by this, you know, rebel military command that was led in the east. They were really just a collection of militias that were centered around four or five towns along this western mountain chain sort of between Tripoli, south to Tunisia. And these were towns of about 50,000, 60,000 people apiece. The biggest one, Zliten, was sort of a center, one of the first places where the anti-Gaddafi uprising began. And each of the towns had, the way I understood it, a military command under Gaddafi that had a commander or commanders who defected very early on, and each commander in those towns then was responsible for linking up his forces with the forces in the neighboring towns.
JAY: So these were commanders who had been in the Libyan army proper and defected early, ’cause we didn’t know a lot about the west. Most of the talk was this was an eastern uprising. There was a lot of talk that Benghazi was traditionally a place that had been anti-Gaddafi, and that the west was a lot more divided pro and con Gaddafi. What did you find?
BENGALI: Right. There was definitely a bit of that. There was some places that had Gaddafi supporters in them. Most people in the west, though, are actually Berbers. And they’re an ancient tribe, really, that had been marginalized and very heavily suppressed under Gaddafi. They have a language called Tamazight, which was outlawed under Gaddafi. Even naming your child a Tamazight name was outlawed. And Gaddafi had always really suppressed these guys. And one of the first things that the rebellion in the west was about was trying to restore some of the Imazigh culture and the namings and the–. And I could see as I drove through, they had scrawled, you know, out the Arabic script on some of the buildings and graffitied in, you know, Tamazight words.
JAY: In Benghazi it was a somewhat more religious area, more Islamist than certainly Tripoli, so I’m told. What was the situation in western Libya? How much was this an Islamist issue? Or it sounds more like an ethno-cultural issue.
BENGALI: It was very ethnic. You know, Libya’s a small country, about 5 million people. The Berbers form, you know, a fraction of that. But they are really centered around that area. And so kind of systematic was the oppression that they all sort of felt, I believe, everywhere, everyone I talked to, the refugees who had streamed into Tunisia, all talked about this.
JAY: Now, when you say “oppression”, what was the situation like? ‘Cause we’ve heard that in Libya that, you know, in terms of the economy and medical care and things like this, that it wasn’t so bad. What was the situation like for them?
BENGALI: It was really a political issue, I think. You know, it’s easy to think about, you know, Libya has good roads, it has an oil industry, it has workers who come from Egypt and Sudan and Bangladesh to come in and do the menial work much as we have in America. We have, you know, immigrants coming in to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do. It’s much the same in Libya. And Benghazi is full of oil workers from other countries. But it’s really a political and ethnic issue. And I think one thing that I learned in covering the Western rebellion a little bit was that the ethnic issue is one we don’t understand all that well in Libya. People always played down–the rebels always played down the tribal issue. They were really, you know, united for a long time–and still are, I think–in their hatred of Gaddafi and his family. What we will have to decide, you know, going forward is how much, you know, is the ethnic issue going to come into play, or the differences among the various tribes and clans, and of course the Berbers being one of those groups.
JAY: Now, the rebels that entered Tripoli, people or observers or journalists are talking about they seem more organized, more disciplined, and the timing of everything seems to have been more organized. What would lead the western rebels to be more organized than what people observe from the east?
BENGALI: Well, it seems like they were, as I said, a collection of militias in different towns, and where they gather their strength, you know, was when they would join together. And so it was really a very basic command and control structure. It was one or two commanders talking by satellite phone with folks, you know, in the next town along the mountain chain. Imagine, you know, 30, 40 miles separating each town and really a very difficult terrain, you know, very mountainous, very rugged, and snaking along this mountain road were all these various towns.
JAY: How much fighting had there been over the last two, three months in this area?
BENGALI: There had been quite a bit. You know, we heard a lot of reports about Gaddafi forces in the crevasses, in the valleys, shelling these towns, you know, from down below up to the top. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on. What finally happened was Zliten, the largest town in the chain–and it’s about–you know, it’s the closest town to Tripoli in that mountain chain–that finally became the center where the rebels got organized. They established a media center. Journalists began coming in and observing these guys, you know, really keeping control of their towns and taking fire, and not really fighting pitched battles, but holding their ground and keeping the border with Tunisia open, allowing them to resupply their fighters and get medical care and supplies for these towns, and I think we don’t know the full story yet, but allowing trainers from NATO and from Qatar and other countries to use Tunisia as a staging area to get weapons in, to get foreign trainers in. But Tunisia has a long history with the French. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that there were French trainers using that border as a way to transit in and out.
JAY: Because we’ve been reading in the last day or two that there’s been a lot of guidance coming from NATO on–giving satellite information about what’s happening in Tripoli, sort of precision information to the forces. And if it’s mostly Western forces, it suggests maybe some particular connection between the western rebels and the NATO.
BENGALI: Look, this had to have been coordinated, because NATO forces control the coastline of Tripoli. They’re all over the Mediterranean. They have bombed Gaddafi. The ships that were firing SCUD missiles, they have degraded completely the coastline there that Gaddafi’s forces were using. And the rebels on Sunday, as they were planning this big raid on Tripoli, sent ships, at least one ship, from the east to resupply and reinforce fighters. And there’s no way that ship could have traveled that distance without coordination with NATO.
JAY: Now, when this began in Benghazi, there was a big banner that famously was on the side of a building, which began, no foreign intervention, period. A few weeks later, it went to a no-fly zone but no boots intervention. So what is the situation amongst the western rebels in terms of NATO foreign intervention? We’re hearing a lot now about NATO wanting to have boots on the ground in order to prevent a civil war–I’m putting quotation marks here, because some people are suggesting it may have more to do with NATO wanting to control the outcome of who becomes the government next. But in terms of this attitude towards, especially, any NATO troops on the ground, what was the response, your feeling, amongst these western rebels?
BENGALI: Well, the rebels were really eager when I met them–this is now back in May–very eager for NATO support, because they had been fighting, as you said, a rebellion that was out of the news. People were focused on Benghazi. They began to be focused on Misrata because of the siege there. The rebels in the West really were neglected. You know, when I visited, there had been no journalists there in–you know, I think, since the uprising began, really–at least, no English-speaking journalist. And so they–you know, they clearly needed the attention. They finally got it when the sort of critical mass of the uprising in the west really, you know, occurred, maybe about two months ago now. They are probably more open to NATO intervention, because they were part of this big raid on Tripoli that so far is allowing them to hold the city. But like anything, you know, if NATO is seen as interfering with the rebels’ ability to really establish their own government structure, that’s going to be a big problem for people.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
BENGALI: My pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network again, with Shashank Bengali from the McClatchy newspaper chain.
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