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Is Gadhafi Plotting a Last Stand in Hometown of Sirte?

August 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Libyan rebels gained access to Moammar Gadhafi's Tripoli compound after intense fighting on Tuesday. Jeffrey Brown gets on-the-ground reports from Libya on the fighting in the capital and the scenes in the eastern city of Benghazi from Lindsey Hilsum of International Television News and Jon Jensen of GlobalPost.
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JEFFREY BROWN: I talked with Lindsey Hilsum a short time after she filed that report.

Lindsey Hilsum, welcome once again.

Tell us more about the takeover at the compound. It sounds as though there was resistance in some parts of it, but not in others?

LINDSEY HILSUM: I think that that is right.

There was certainly fighting around there pretty much all day, huge explosions, heavy weapons being used, and smoke rising from the compound all through the morning and the first part of the afternoon. One rebel fighter I spoke to who had been in the compound said to me, though, that not all of that was, in fact, fighting. He said some of that was just the rebels firing.

His unit had not met with any resistance, but he said, we’re a bit chaotic. He said, we don’t really coordinate. So rebels were just firing around as they went in, partly in excitement, partly in case there was resistance. So, some of that noise may just have been the rebels.

But as I speak now, it appears that Colonel Gadhafi’s loyalists who were in that compound have fled. We think that they have fled south, and the compound is in the hands of some very, very happy rebels.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Gadhafi and his family, of course, were not found there. What are the possibilities or conjecture now as to their whereabouts?

LINDSEY HILSUM: We really don’t know.

It was a tremendous shock to many people when Saif al-Gadhafi, who had been reported to be arrested yesterday, suddenly appeared in the Rixos Hotel, and then went down to that Bab Al Aziziya compound in the middle of the night. So, had he been arrested? Did he escape? Was there some kind of trickery involved? We have no idea.

And where he is now, we don’t know. That compound has bunkers and tunnels. Have the family escaped through that tunnel? Or maybe they’re heading for Sirte. Sirte is on the coast east of Tripoli. It’s Colonel Gadhafi’s hometown. And that one place is still very much firmly in his hands. It’s possible that that could be the place for their last stand, rather than the compound in Tripoli.

But I have to say, I am like pretty much all Libyans. I don’t know where Colonel Gadhafi is. I don’t know where his family is. And until people do know where he is, they won’t feel that this is 100 percent over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, in your piece, you talk about the shifting atmosphere yesterday and today in the streets between celebration and tension. Give us a sense of how it feels being there.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, it goes one way or another.

And you go out on the streets as we did today and yesterday, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find. But there are always local men there. These are the people who rose up on Saturday night with their weapons, attacked Gadhafi’s police and the remainder of his soldiers and so on, drove them out of their neighborhoods.

So this is a city now which is under the control of different informal militia, people who know each other. They know their neighborhoods. They have put up checkpoints and barricades. Anybody coming in gets searched, gets questioned. And if they look a bit suspicious or they don’t come from that area, people are not sure who they are, then they may get detained. We came across quite a few prisoners today.

They didn’t seem to be badly treated, but they were people who they said, these men have a question mark over them. We don’t know who they are.

So I think what we’re seeing now is Tripoli divided into these different neighborhoods. And then there are still some snipers. These are people loyal to Colonel Gadhafi, maybe the mercenaries from other countries who he was paying to fight for him. They are in some buildings. And every now and then, they shoot down in the streets. So there is a lot of tension. People aren’t safe.

It will probably take quite a while, days, to mop all those different places. But on the streets, the people say this is going fast in the direction that they want. They say his rule is over. What we don’t know, of course, is what kind of rule will come next, because there is a power vacuum. The neighborhood men control the streets, but nobody is in political power in Tripoli tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, Lindsey, coming back to the news of the day, the takeover of the compound, what of the symbolic value and importance of that?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Oh, it was an extraordinary symbol of his power. This was the huge compound, which was partially residential and partly military, which nobody could go in unless invited by the Gadhafis and people in his inner circle.

Now, that was where he would entertain world leaders. I think he entertained the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair there once. And in the center of it, there was this statue which he put up after U.S. jets bombed the compound in 1986. It showed a golden fist, his fist, round an American jet.

And what that said was: I am more powerful than the Americans. I am the most powerful man. I will stay here forever.

Now, those — that kind of symbol, seeing the rebel flag flying on it, seeing the rebels climbing all over it, seeing them trashing the golden bust of Colonel Gadhafi’s head, those are the pictures which show Libyans that the era of Colonel Gadhafi is over. The symbols of his power are gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lindsey Hilsum in Tripoli, thanks so much.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Goodbye.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the other side of Libya, the eastern city of Benghazi, which has been home to the rebel National Council since the uprising began this spring.

Jon Jensen of the international website GlobalPost is there. I talked with him a short time ago.

Jon Jensen, thanks for joining us.

So what is the feeling there in Benghazi? Do they think this is over or just about almost over?

JON JENSEN, GlobalPost: Well, the mood in Benghazi tonight is one of extreme jubilation. Residents here, as well as members of the National Transitional Council, all believe that this six-month civil war is finally coming to a close, after their rebel fighters stormed into Gadhafi’s Tripoli headquarters tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there have been some reports of a possible move of that council to Tripoli within a couple days. What do you know?

JON JENSEN: That’s right. I’m hearing the same reports.

The NTC does want to eventually move to Tripoli. In a press conference earlier tonight, the head of the council, Mahmoud Jibril, stated that, in some ways, the move had already started. However, spokesmen off-camera will — have said to me that the official line is that the NTC will move to Tripoli when the conditions are right for it to move to Tripoli.

There are meetings tomorrow in Doha in Qatar, and after that, they will come back to Benghazi and they will decide to go — where to go from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whereabouts of Gadhafi and his family, of course, remain unknown. What are the leaders that you’re talking to there saying about — about what will happen if and when he is caught? Is there any sense of revenge, or what are they — what are they planning?

JON JENSEN: The NTC has told me, spokesmen for the rebel authority have told me that, you know, there will be a sense of revenge among some of the rebel fighters on the front lines.

They will want to do certain things to members of the tribe and Gadhafi himself if he — if and when he’s caught. But right now, they’re saying that the official line is that they want to bring justice to Moammar Gadhafi after 42 years of injustice that he brought on the residents of Libya. So, they’re looking to find him and try him here in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was, of course, last night a lot of confusion when his son, Saif al-Islam, showed up in Tripoli and was rallying supporters. That was after the council, the leadership, had said he was under arrest.

Have you been able to talk to them about what happened last night?

JON JENSEN: Rebel leaders here at the NTC have told me, frankly, it was a mistake.

They received information from commanders in the field, and they passed it off without even checking the accuracy of these reports. Rebel leaders at the NTC actually tried to spin their mistake today in a press conference earlier tonight, saying that the announcement that Saif had been caught actually won them the defection of around 30 officers. So, they are trying to spin this mistake to their advantage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that celebration in the background?

JON JENSEN: Absolutely.

There’s tracer fire being shot into the sky. They’re actually lighting off TNT. So, it sounded at first this — earlier this evening like they were letting off mortars in the city. It’s sort of a weird thing. You know, Tripoli is where the fighting had been. We’re 1,000 kilometers away from that, but it sounds like a war going on here — pure celebration.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jon Jensen of GlobalPost in Benghazi, thanks so much.

JON JENSEN: My pleasure.