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Libyan Rebels Fend Off Pro-Gadhafi Forces as Refugees Flood Borders

March 2, 2011 at 5:56 PM EDT
Libyan rebels clashed with militias loyal to Moammar Gadhafi as the embattled leader warned of further bloodshed if the international community interferes in the country's affairs. James Mates, Jonathan Rugman and Alex Thomson of Independent Television News report on the latest from Libya and its borders.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi struck back at his opponents today with words and warfare. Just after dawn, about 200 of his loyalists attacked the eastern oil port of Brega in dozens of vehicles. Opposition militias drove them out, but doctors reported 10 killed and 18 wounded.

We have a series of reports from Independent Television News correspondents, beginning with James Mates in the town of Ajdabiya.

JAMES MATES: Testing their weapons and establishing what they fear may soon become a front line. A few miles from the now besieged town of Al Brega, the counterattack they had feared for more than a week seemed to have started in the early hours of this morning.

From inside Brega, a fighter we contacted spoke of appalling scenes.

MAN: This terrible situation is actually slaughter. We were there nearly 100. Just maybe 20 get back, and 10 are still alive, we carry them with us.

JAMES MATES: Here, they’re getting ready, but the reality is that they are volunteers and irregulars who may have to go up against some of Gadhafi’s best-trained troops.

From here, they are sending men and ammunition down the road toward al-Brega to help out in the battle there and receiving the wounded back here. But most of all, what they want to do here is stop the contagion spreading, to make this effectively a front line against any Gadhafi advance.

In the main hospital at Ajdabiya, seven wounded in the fighting are getting what treatment is available. For the most part, they are gunshot and shrapnel wounds. The doctors here are being told by colleagues in Brega of many more dead and injured who can’t yet be evacuated.

DR. SABRI MOHAMMED, Ajdabiya Hospital: There are lots of injured there who they cannot send them there. And there are no supplies there, OK? I’m talking about supplies. I’m talking about doctors. I’m talking about medical supply in general. There are nothing there.

JAMES MATES: Nothing in Brega?

DR. SABRI MOHAMMED: Yes, there’s nothing there. OK? It’s a massacre. Right now, it’s a massacre, OK?

JAMES MATES: Among the casualties, a young boy no more than 6 or 7 years old with a gunshot wound in his abdomen.

At a nearby arms dump, where the guards had joined the rebellion, they’re taking ammunition and handheld weapons to get them down the road to their colleagues. But what they have in supplies, they lack in expertise.

FATHI ABDUL MENOUM: We are taking most of the RPG and the other things, the machine guns, the — it calls for — to use for the planes.

JAMES MATES: So, anti-aircraft weapons?

FATHI ABDUL MENOUM: Yes, anti-aircraft.

JAMES MATES: Do you have enough people who know how to use them?

FATHI ABDUL MENOUM: Actually, no.

JAMES MATES: The latest reports from Al Brega say that Gadhafi’s forces have this evening pulled out of the town, but none here are optimistic that they won’t try again.

MARGARET WARNER: Gadhafi also issued another verbal broadside today. He appeared in Tripoli, insisting his regime will fight to the last man and woman. And he warned against any military intervention by outside powers.

Jonathan Rugman reports from Tripoli.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: He’s lost his grip on eastern Libya. But driving his own golf cart today, often hands-free, Col. Gadhafi seemed neither embattled, nor beleaguered.

The uprising against him is a fortnight old now, and Gadhafi is pushing back. “They’re saying Gadhafi should leave,” he told us today, “but I will never leave the land of my forefathers. I have no authority anyway, because power lies with the people.”

Sanctions, he said, were part of a plot to invade Libya. Thousands and thousands will die if the U.S. or NATO come here, he claimed. “We would die for you in battle, Gadhafi,” his supporters shouted. “Just call us, and everyone will come.”

He told them al-Qaida sleeper cells had sneaked into Libya and that no more than 200 people had been killed in all. But he had this message for rebel-held Benghazi. “If people hand over their weapons, we will educate them,” he said. “They should surrender now, and we will forgive.”

There have many assassination attempts in his 41-year rule, and this bodyguard’s briefcase is believed to contain armored plating, in case of a gun attack. But the boss seemed relaxed. He called the invited foreign press mouthpieces of imperialism. And his audience lapped it up, though one or two couldn’t help dropping off, their brotherly leader having spoken for over two-and-a-half-hours almost nonstop.

Then it was back into the world’s most guarded golf cart for the short drive home. There have not been any protests, he had claimed; when the world finds out the truth, it will be shocked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.N. refugee officials reported today the number of people fleeing Libya in recent days now tops 180,000. The great majority are thousands of foreign workers trying to get home.

Alex Thomson has the latest on that part of the story from Tunisia.

ALEX THOMSON: Passport control, Tunisia — officials on both sides organize it so that different nationalities come over on different days, so, yesterday, thousands of Egyptians, today, much smaller numbers of Bangladeshis.

They said they’d been waiting four days the other side, and their company and their government had done nothing to help — Ghanaians, too. And to be black in Libya right now is to be in great danger. Ghana’s honorary consul at hand to explain.

KAMEL BEN YAGHLEN, Tunisian Honorary Consul to Ghana: Some — some people of authority in Libya use some black people for their revolution or counter-revolution. This is our problem.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: A diplomat’s description of Col. Gadhafi using black Africans as mercenaries. We met Sam Mulatto here, who said he’d personally seen four Ghanaians who’d been shot dead.

MAN: So, if they see you are a black man, you are in big problem. So, people in Libya, they are just hiding themselves. I mean black people. They are hiding themselves. Some of them are in the desert far away. Some of them are in bush. I mean, they are in farms. They are in gardens. And some of them are in their room. You cannot go outside, no food, no water. They are just sleeping.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Further into Tunisia, evidence everywhere you look of the problem here. Tented camps can take 10,000 or so, but there are quite simply far more people than there are tents.

So, transport is the solution, the only way out of this. Mercifully, one of the biggest airports in Tunisia is close to the border here at Djerba. Three British charter jets began landing here today. France is also sending military planes, too, and a ship. Together, they will bring out at least 10,000 evacuees.

Not far away, at the port of Zarzis, things look quiet enough at first. But inside the transit shed here, many more await another route home to Egypt.

So, several hundred people in the transit shed behind me, and the way out will be this, the Egyptian auxiliary naval vessel, the Halaib. They reckon they can take about 1,200 people on that.

But if British officials’ figures are right, you would need at least 60 ships like this to take all the Egyptians home.

MARGARET WARNER: As European nations began rescue missions, the U.S. also moved military forces closer to Libya today. Two Navy amphibious ships sailed through the Suez Canal, arriving in the Mediterranean. They’re capable of putting hundreds of Marines on — ashore.

Meanwhile, the rebels in eastern Libya called for outside airstrikes against Gadhafi’s forces. But in Washington, at a House hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said setting up a no-fly zone over Libya is no simple matter.

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. And let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya, to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can and — and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the Senate side, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry, said the U.S. must do what it can to aid the Libyan opposition, including a no-fly zone.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.), Foreign Relations Committee chairman: The people of Libya are not asking for foreign troops on the ground. They are committed to doing what is necessary. But they do need the tools to prevent the slaughter of innocents on Libyan streets. And I believe that the global community cannot be on the sidelines while airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe.

MARGARET WARNER: At that same hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said all options are still alive. And she said, above all, the U.S. doesn’t want Libya to end up a failed state.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia. It’s — it’s right now not something that we see in the offing, but many of the al-Qaida activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya and came from eastern Libya, which is now the so-called free area of Libya.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arab League foreign ministers said today they would consider imposing their own no-fly zone over Libya. They met in Cairo and agreed to consult with the African Union on which steps to take.