8:00am

Sun April 24, 2011
Middle East

Despite Drones, Libyan Rebels Make Few Gains

Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Libya, fighting continues in Western cities and towns despite claims by government forces that they have pulled out from the besieged city of Misrata. The use of U.S. Predator drones has beefed up the NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya, but gains by anti-government rebels have been minimal. The latest developments have done nothing to ease fears of a stalemate with no obvious solution. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in eastern part of the country in rebel-held Benghazi. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON: Morning, Liane.

HANSEN: What do you know about the pro-government troop movements in the west and what might be behind them?

KENYON: Well, in Misrata yesterday, it was a rare day of gains for the rebels. Rebel fighters said nearly all the pro-government forces appeared to have pulled out of the port city itself. That's important because it means snipers are no longer terrorizing and killing the population for one thing. But shelling from outside the city continued. Doctors say that a couple of dozen rebel fighters were killed yesterday.

Out in the western mountains, rebels claim to have still have control of a border crossing with Tunisia, and that provides an important supply line. Food and aid is crossing, we're told. The government now also recently has claimed to have retaken another border town.

In Tripoli, the deputy foreign minister said that its fighters in Misrata had not retreated by suspended operations because, he said, local tribes wanted to try and mediate a solution to the conflict. And he also went on to warn if that failed the tribesmen might join the battle.

HANSEN: Tribal warfare is always one of those red flags that analysts raise as a sign that the situation could regress into a civil war. Are the rebels saying anything about that?

KENYON: They've been pretty skeptical. Of course, from the first day of the uprising, one of their mantras has been one Libya with Tripoli as its capital. Everyone here remembers the history of tribal fighting. It fractured the country. Some suggest possibly Colonel Gadhafi has an interest in stirring this pot up, raising anxieties. But there's no avoiding the fact that it could happen, and there are more than enough weapons in this country to fuel a prolonged conflict.

HANSEN: Now, American involvement has ramped up with the use of Predator drones in Libya. Is that likely to make a significant difference in the situation on the ground?

KENYON: Well, what we're hearing is that the drone attack yesterday, the first one that's been reported, knocked out a government Grad rocket launcher in Misrata. Now, that is a step up from apparently what the NATO forces were capable of before the drones arrived on the scene. The rebels, of course, have been asking for much more than that, including foreign troops with a limited humanitarian mission. So far, that has not been agreed to.

And analysts say the drones themselves, they probably don't tip the military scales significantly, certainly not as much as a couple of U.S. aircraft that are particularly suited to this type of combat, the A-10 and the AC-130. Washington has withdrawn those from the field and shown no inclination to return them, at least thus far.

HANSEN: So, it leaves the prospects of a stalemate very much on the table. Are the rebels doing or saying anything that suggests there's a way to avoid that?

KENYON: Well, frankly, the way it looks right now, the rebels don't have the capacity to do much beyond maintaining a stalemate, and even that only with international air cover. There had been hopes that Gadhafi's regime or his military might crumble from within. Those have not developed so far.

There's an article today in the Los Angeles Times about tens of billions of dollars Gadhafi still has access in countries outside the U.S. and Europe. Now that's money he can use to prevent high-level defections or to continue to wage war. That may change over time but for the moment it would take some new commitment, I think, from somewhere - the U.S., Europe, the Arab world - to change the equation.

HANSEN: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Benghazi, Libya. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.