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Can U.S., NATO Avoid a Humanitarian Crisis in Libya?

April 18, 2011 at 6:04 PM EST
The government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reached an agreement to provide humanitarian assistance to the western part of the country in order to prevent a growing crisis there. Margaret Warner discusses the looming disaster with The Wall Street Journal's Charles Levinson, who is in Misrata.
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GWEN IFILL: Charles Levinson of The Wall Street Journal is in Misrata.

Margaret Warner spoke with him by phone earlier this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Charles Levinson, thanks for joining us.

You just got to Misrata last night. What does this city look like, feel like to you?

CHARLES LEVINSON, The Wall Street Journal: It feels very much like a city under siege and which it is.

Everywhere you go, there’s the bread lines winding around the block. And people who have been here for a while say they’re getting longer every day. The gas stations have massive lines of cars waiting to get gas, because there’s only a few gas stations in town that are in safe neighborhoods.

There are whole blocks of the city that are off-limits because Gadhafi’s forces have taken up positions in buildings with snipers. You have 10-year-old kids being shot in the head. We saw three kids in the past 24 hours who have been hit in the head by bullets while playing outside their houses. It is — it feels grim.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Gadhafi’s forces are actually in the town. Are they also besieging it from outside? What is the balance of power between the two sides?

CHARLES LEVINSON: Gadhafi’s forces definitely have the advantage in terms of weaponry and probably numbers as well. They have tanks, artillery, heavy artillery, rockets.

The rebels have the advantage of fighting on urban terrain that they know intimately. They’re all — each unit, group of rebels is defending their own neighborhood, basically. So, once Gadhafi forces get in the city, inside the city streets, they are at a huge disadvantage. Tanks are not the ideal weapon for urban — urban combat. So, the rebels have been fairly successful of — in — in repulsing Gadhafi’s thrust into the city.

MARGARET WARNER: Since, you have been there, has there been any sight or sound of NATO airstrikes?

CHARLES LEVINSON: All day long, there was nothing. This evening, we started hearing a very distant buzz of airplanes overhead. We didn’t see anything. We heard some distant booms. But we don’t know for sure whether those were airstrikes or what they were.

We suspected they might have been. Talking to the rebel fighters, they say sort of the same thing. They see very few NATO airstrikes. They hear the planes, but they don’t see a whole lot of action by NATO.

MARGARET WARNER: Do the rebels think that would help, or is this the kind of close-in fighting that, in fact, airstrikes can’t affect?

CHARLES LEVINSON: They think it will help.

For example, on one of the main streets where there’s been a lot of fighting, this Tripoli Street, they know buildings that have, you know, scores of Gadhafi troops inside them. And they have tried to bomb the buildings, but they can’t — they can’t do it. They are sort of small rudimentary explosives. And they want to see a bomb drop on these buildings.

MARGARET WARNER: And how and where are they caring for all these hundreds, really thousands, of wounded?

CHARLES LEVINSON: The doctors are working nonstop. The hospitals are a sight like I have never seen. They’re overflowing. They have set up tents outside the hospitals acting as the emergency rooms. They’re treating only the ones that they think they can handle. Others are going untreated.

The people are being sent home early, as soon as they have had the most rudimentary care. And operating rooms are going 24 hours a day.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have a sense of how long the rebels can hold out?

CHARLES LEVINSON: It’s a good question. That’s what — that’s what sort of everybody is asking and what we’re trying to answer. And they seem pretty optimistic.

They’re not speaking in terms of dire terms. But at the same time, things seem to be getting — you know, are deteriorating here. They have the port. As long as they can keep that port going and supplies coming in, they think they can hold out. But they’re also counting on the fact that they think they — their fighting morale is much higher than their enemies’, that the Gadhafi forces don’t want to be fighting.

They don’t — they’re not fighting for a cause. They’re fighting for a paycheck, whereas these people, the rebels, are fighting to defend their home. Their supplies — they’re hanging by a thin thread. I think that’s fair to say.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Charles Levinson of The Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

CHARLES LEVINSON: It’s been my pleasure.