Reed Lindsay: Libyan rebel success dependent on NATO mission


Story Transcript

REED LINDSAY, TRNN: Tripoli has fallen, but the death count keeps mounting. Every Friday, the most recent casualties are mourned in front of Benghaziâ€s courthouse, the symbolic epicenter of the Libyan revolution.

MOURNERS/PROTESTERS: We are not afraid to be martyred. We are not afraid to die victorious God willing. No more negotiations. We need to fight back.

LINDSAY: There is no more space at Benghaziâ€s main cemetery…Twenty-three bodies were buried last week at a newly built gravesite… And fresh graves are already prepared for the coming days. The dead are called martyrs … killed on the front lines in the battle for Sirte, a stronghold of ousted leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi and one of the last cities still under his control.

RIYDAH HAWARI REBEL, (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Everyone wants peace, but we gave them a chance, we waited, we negotiated. Every time we extend our hand, they attack us and kill us. Gaddafi’s tribe is our people. We want them to surrender. No more blood. But look at the blood they have shed during a cease-fire. Look at how many martyrs have been killed. So put down our guns and talk more? It is time to go in [to Sirte].

LINDSAY: After liberating Tripoli, rebel forces halted their expected assaults on Sirte and the other remaining Gaddafi enclaves, Bani Walid and Sabha. But here on the front lines, the fighting never stopped. These Russian-made 130-millimeter guns are firing at Gaddafi positions 16 miles away.

MOHAMMED NAIIB, ECONOMICS STUDENT/ REBEL (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): NATO spots the targets, gives us the coordinates and we fire at them with our weapons…Gaddafi doesnâ€t have howitzers like these, and even if he does, he canâ€t attack us. When they try to use missiles, NATO spots them and destroys them immediately.

LINDSAY, (60 MILES EAST OF SIRTE) – LIBYA: Air Power has been a decisive factor in the battle for Libya. Six months ago, Gaddafiâ€s planes controlled the skies, allowing his ground forces to reach Benghazi. Since then, NATO has decimated Gaddafiâ€s air force. His loyalists are defenseless against here in the open desert, and the revolutionary forces have the upper hand. With only a few cities left under Gaddafiâ€s control, the rebel leadership, known as the National Transitional Council, initially sought a peaceful end to the war.

MUSTAPHA ABDEL JALIL, CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL: I think I have mentioned we are currently in a position of strength that allows us to enter any city. But we are still careful to avoid bloodshed and loss of Libyan lives and to preserve the safety of our institutions. Especially as these areas are tribal areas and the situation in them can be characterized as sensitive.

LINDSAY: But negotiations with tribal leaders in Sirte and the surrounding desert did not go smoothly. About 60 miles east of Sirte, families have set up a temporary camp in an area under the control of the rebels away from the fighting in and near coastal towns. The rebels court tribal leaders for their support, providing them with water, food and medicine. An argument breaks out when the rebels accuse the tribal leaders of hiding weapons despite a promise to disarm. The mutual distrust is palpable.

MOHAMMED ABDEL WAZZARD, TRIBAL LEADER, (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We donâ€t know whatâ€s going on here. We mind our own business. We donâ€t get involved. We have to take care of our families, our children, people need to get married, we need to have security. We donâ€t support anyone trying to take these things away.

LINDASY: The rebels complain that many tribal leaders remain loyal to Gaddafi even after their territory has fallen into rebel hands. Negotiations with leaders in Sirte, where Gaddafiâ€s own tribe holds sway, broke down completely. On Friday, rebel attacks on Sirte and Bani Walid were repelled by Gaddafi forces, even as NATO strikes pounded the city with air strikes.

IBRAHIM MOUSSA MOHAMMED REBEL COMMANDER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The problem is there are some people who committed crimes like killing their own people. They have become criminals. They have killed and raped, so theyâ€re afraid of the revolution coming to Sirte and are willing to fight to the death.

LINDSAY: Eighty miles behind the front lines, the rebels guarding the entrance to the oil town of Ras Lanuf are on heightened alert. A day before, Gaddafi forces launched a surprise attack from the desert. 16 rebels were killed, including five who were found with their hands tied together. Only one, shot in the stomach and left for dead, survived. The Gaddafi loyalists fired missiles at the Ras Lanuf oil refinery before slipping back into the desert. The attack was a grim reminder of the continued threat posed by Gaddafi even as he and his sons are on the run.

SAMIR ABDEL RAHMAN ALI, OIL WORKER/ REBEL: In my personal opinion, nothing surprises me anymore because Gaddafi will say anything, do anything to discredit us.

LINDSAY: A report released this week by Amnesty International documents widespread human rights abuses committed by Gaddafi forces, including extrajudicial executions, torture, disappearances and attacks on civilians that amount to war crimes.The report also documents similar abuses committed by the rebels, although on a much smaller scale, with dark-skinned Libyans and immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa being targeted in many cases. Many immigrants have fled the country…others are being held in detention centers without having been formally charged.Back on the front lines, morale is high and most of the rebels seem to be brimming with confidence. These rebels are taking a break at an abandoned hotel after returning from the Eid holiday…their first visit to see their families in three months.

AHMED COMPUTER TECHNICIAN/REBEL (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We are the new government. We have the money, we have the United Nations supporting us. We have the oil. All the oil in Libya now is in the revolutionâ€s hands. Even if they want Gaddafi. Heâ€s now like a criminal, weâ€re looking for him.

LINDSAY: At the front lines, rebels gather to eat, wash and pray as missiles launched by their comrades sail overhead. They seem unconcerned by the proximity of Gaddafi forces … only six miles away.

REBEL: We are here because Gaddafi forces remain. So weâ€re waiting here. We have to wait before we attack because there are people there looking for a peaceful solution. There are innocent people inside, civilians. Theyâ€re being held at gunpoint.

LINDSAY: Grad missiles launched by Gaddafiâ€s loyalists explode harmlessly in the desert, far off target. Thanks to a NATO operation that has gone far beyond its stated mission of protecting civilians, the rebels†push towards Sirte seems inevitable. The question is when theyâ€ll take it…and at what cost. Reed Lindsay, for The Real News Network, 60 miles east of Sirte.

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