Libyan rebels and government forces have staged several offensives in the battle for control of the country. To get a clearer picture of the situation on the ground, VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke to our correspondent Phil Ittner who is currently in the opposition-held town of Benghazi.
Ittner: The opposition leadership says that it has actually pushed back against what amounts to a counter-offensive by government troops. Those lines in the desert seem to be moving back and forth. Now, independently confirming where exactly the frontline is very difficult. Not only is it too dangerous for many journalists to go [there], but it’s a wide frontline, it being an open desert.
The opposition says, however, that they pushed back into the oil town of Brega, that they took prisoners, that they killed some soldiers and pushed back against a government offensive.
Yackee: Are the rebels feeling demoralized?
Ittner: It comes and goes for the mood and the morale here in opposition-held [parts of] Libya. There is occasionally an awful lot of anxiety when they see the government pushing in this direction, but then it reverses when they think they are on the cusp of getting the international no-fly zone. Obviously, they are keeping a very close eye on diplomatic efforts both in Brussels and in New York.
A lot of the opposition leadership is heartened by the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with an opposition delegation in Paris today. They do also point to the fact, at least in their minds, what they say, is the status of Gadhafi’s forces. They say that the actual troops of Mr. Gadhafi are demoralized; they are stretched with their supply lines, that he actually has very few frontline-proficient expert troops, that he is relying on his artillery, his planes and his tanks, and that the troops he has are actually demoralized.
VOA correspondent Phil Ittner on assignment in Benghazi, LibyaSo the mood does change within the opposition day-to-day. But the fact that apparently they have pushed back into Brega, the fact that they have captured opposition troops or so they say, and that these troops seem to be in a very poor state shows, in their minds, once there is movement on the international no-fly zone, that they will flood into the west quite quickly and that what they call the house of cards of Mr. Gadhafi’s forces will collapse quickly.
Yackee: Libyan state television is saying that the government has offered amnesty to any soldier that had defected and joined the rebels, but returns and surrenders to the military – is there any reaction to that?
Ittner: Actually, quite to the contrary. The opposition says that they are getting more defectors, that people are coming to their side, and that this kind of offer just shows the desperation in Tripoli of the Gadhafi regime. They also point to the fact that they have just appointed a new commander of their forces, a gentleman by the name of Abdel Yunis, who was the commander of the special forces brigade, who defected early in the uprising, but was reluctant to take command because of the command structure. Apparently, he felt that he could not take orders from officers that had previously been working under him.
And there was some reluctance on the opposition’s side, because Yunis had been very close to the Gadhafi regime. So although he had defected, he had not been on the front lines - him or his reported 2,500 soldiers . [unintelligible] … this coincides with what the opposition is saying – that it was a tactical maneuver that helped them move back into Brega. So, if you put the two together – the fact that there is a new military commander on the opposition side, and if reports that they moved back into Brega are accurate, it does show that there is a shift in the opposition forces and that there is a little bit more proficiency.
All of this is, of course, very hard to confirm and the accuracy of where that frontline is and what is going on on that frontline is very difficult [to ascertain]. There is a lot of concern among the opposition forces about possible fifth-columnists or infiltrators, pro-Gadhafi elements that may sneak into what is basically a volunteers force – so there is some anxiety there, some suspicion, and so there is a lot more control of movement leading to the frontline.
In addition to that there has been some souring of attitudes toward journalists, because they think that some of the information the world press is putting out is assisting the intelligence gathering capability of Mr. Gadhafi. So it’s very tenuous on the frontline. It’s very hard to get an accurate report, but here in Benghazi what the opposition is saying is: yes, we have seen setbacks, but we are convinced that this is only due to the heavy weaponry the government can bring to bear, not the amount of troops or the support or will of the people. The opposition says: when we get this no-fly-zone, this thing will collapse quickly and the Gadhafi family will run into exile in short order.
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