GWEN IFILL: The Libyan rebels’ drive to oust Moammar Gadhafi reached the outskirts of his hometown and tribal base today. Fighting erupted outside the city of Sirte, home to 100,000 people. It’s a key stronghold guarding the approaches to Tripoli, 225 miles away.
The rebels had already rolled up a series of eastern cities in a lightning advance over the weekend, behind a curtain of coalition airstrikes.
We have a report from outside Sirte from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.
LINDSEY HILSUM: They’re fighting just east of Sirte, Col. Gadhafi’s birthplace. The rebels, who swept up the road yesterday found his tanks waiting for them today. Rumors had spread that Sirte fell overnight, but Gadhafi’s forces are making a stand in what he calls the political capital of Africa.
We drove past the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. If they hold on to them, the rebels could start exporting crude oil again. They have petrol but no power. So the pumps don’t work. They call this fishing for gas. It’s free, the petrol station’s contribution to the revolution. The momentum is with the rebels, but only because of the allied airstrikes.
The air is thick with smoke. An electrical cable has been hit. That’s what is pumping that black plume into the air. We can hear the occasional thud and crump of the allied airstrikes coming in a few kilometers down the road. That’s where Col. Gadhafi and his armor are. That’s where these rebels are heading now.
Some seemed to be taking it easy, but most were keen to move ahead, just hoping for more allied airstrikes.
MAN: That would be a big help for us. It’s very important. Otherwise, you know, because there are some tanks from him up there, down there. So, if they destroy these tanks, then we are going to keep going, and which will be easier, more easier for us.
LINDSEY HILSUM: They fan out, searching for any of Gadhafi’s soldiers who might still be lurking, ready to fight. A few yards to the side of the road in the desert, a rebel shows me the identity card of a Gadhafi soldier he says they captured. Another has picked up epaulets torn in haste from a uniform as its wearer fled.
In the midst of this, we came across two cousins from Manchester trying to get to Misrata, where their family is stranded.
MAN: I can’t get in contact with like my family, my mom, my dad and everybody else. And what can you can do? You have to get here to find out what’s going on. Obviously, I’m not carrying no arms, but like everybody else, just go with the flow.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Misrata is still in Gadhafi’s hands. They have heard nothing from friends or family for more than three weeks.
MAN: A lot of people — I have got friends of mine (INAUDIBLE).
LINDSEY HILSUM: One family’s story among thousands in a country full of uncertainty, where no one can be sure what the next day will bring.
JEFFREY BROWN: The rebel gains raise new questions about the extent of the coalition’s military mission.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged the campaign has gone well beyond protecting civilians, as the U.N. authorized.
SERGEI LAVROV, Russian foreign minister (through translator): Reports are coming — and no one denies them — on coalition air-force strikes against Gadhafi’s columns of troops and reports about the support of the actions of the armed insurgents.
There’s a clear contradiction here. We believe that interference of the coalition in the internal, as a matter of fact, civil war has not been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution.
GWEN IFILL: In response, NATO’s military commander for Libya insisted the purpose of the airstrikes is unchanged. The alliance agreed on Sunday to take control of the Libyan operation from the U.S., Britain and France.
Meanwhile, Army Gen. Carter Ham of the U.S. Africa Command warned, Gadhafi’s forces could still roll back the rebels if the airstrikes stopped.
At a Pentagon briefing, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney reinforced that view.
VICE ADM. WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. Joint Staff: Clearly, the opposition is not well-organized, and it is not a very robust organization. I mean, that’s — that’s obvious. So, any gain that they make is — is tenuous, based on that.
I mean, it’s — clearly, they’re achieving a benefit from the actions that we’re taking. We’re not coordinating with it. But I think Gen. Ham’s assessment is pretty good.
GWEN IFILL: And, in another development, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar formally recognized the rebels as the legitimate representatives of Libya. It was the first Arab government to take that step.