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NBC's Engel: Protesters control eastern Libya

Unable to communicate by phone after crossing from Egypt into Libya on Tuesday, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported via text messaging and Twitter that he encountered only protesters and military defectors in the eastern region of the war-torn country.

Days after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the current wave of protests sweeping the region, Engel said the opposition was in control along the country’s eastern border.

“No army presence in border area,” he wrote, noting it was now in “protesters’ hands.”

Later, he reported from Tubruk that the city had “fallen" and the army forces were with the people. “All soldiers tell us they are with the people. … Army switched sides in this area.”

“Soldiers tell us they refuse to fire on own people..'our army like Egypt. Won't kill its people,'” he said.

He witnessed people cheering “Libyans unite,” saw a partly-burned army base near the border and signs on the road calling for tribes to stay united. He was told by a gunman: “I’ll say this openly … we must go on to topple the regime.”

Tribal members told Engel that some soldiers had resisted joining them, while others had turned in their weapons. He reported seeing some former soldiers alongside “sons of revolt” and encountered several informal checkpoints – organized by tribes – that were manned by men with hunting rifles and clubs.

Engel also reported that some Libyan demonstrators said they had "captured a group of mercenaries...including at least one from Niger."

The streets of eastern Libya were calm, Engel wrote, though people complained of shortages of rice, flour, sugar and oil. Graffiti on one wall read: “Down Gadhafi.”

In a reminder of the protests sweeping the region and which toppled the government to Libya’s east, Engel noted thousands of Egyptians crossing the Libyan border to head home.

Engel and his crew were unable to establish a voice connection with a satellite phone, but he was able to text messages to NBC’s London bureau, where a producer was publishing them via Twitter.

Follow Richard Engel on Twitterhttp://twitter.com/richardengelnbc