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In Benghazi, air attacks are greatest fear

Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Protesters wave a Kingdom of Libya flag atop a burnt state security building during protests in Benghazi Wednesday. Click on the photo above to see a slideshow on the unrest in Libya.

Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, which is situated in the oil-rich eastern region, is currently controlled by rebel forces trying to oust Moammar Gadhafi. NBC News’ correspondent Stephanie Gosk has been there for several days and reports on the latest developments in Gadhafi’s efforts to clamp down on the rebellion and take back control of some of the countries strategic oil assets.

What is the latest in Benghazi?
Gadhafi struck back at the eastern portion of this country today for the first time since the opposition took control of it just over a week ago. He first hit the town of Brega, which is a major oil-exporting terminal. 

At first Gadhafi’s forces, which are estimated to be around 50 vehicles with mounted machine guns, took the opposition forces by surprise. It seems they quickly took over the oil facility. But then rebel forces struck back and they have been in a back-and-forth battle today. It’s unclear who has real control of the town. We are being told that the rebels have the airstrip and that Gadhafi forces are at the university, and that the battle is still ongoing.

It’s close to the town of Ajdabiya, which is really the western front for the opposition, which now controls almost the entire eastern half of the country.

Today, Gadhafi fighter jets actually bombed areas there.  A munitions dump has now been hit several days in a row, with limited success. People in that town are concerned that if Gadhafi forces take over Brega, they will then move on to Ajdabiya, with their eye on the city of Benghazi.

For several days here they have been setting up a kind of interim national government – which people here say is the only legitimate government until Gadhafi steps down. 

Today there have been discussions among the government council here on whether or not to ask the U.N. for a no-fly zone. Or whether to ask for something more specific – perhaps targeted assaults from the air on Gadhafi forces.

How much attention is focused on control of the oil fields?
It’s a huge concern. Earlier in the week, the rebel forces here in Benghazi claimed that they controlled 80 percent of the oil resources – most of which are in the eastern part of the country.

Now what we are seeing is Gadhafi striking back and trying to take control of those. He made a statement today to state TV where he said that all of the resources were safe and secure. However, the opposition says that they control the oil terminal in Tobruk, which is close to the Egyptian border and is one of the largest oil terminals. And they say that they have declared their independence from the state oil company and that they are now funneling the proceeds they get back to the opposition.

So there is now a real struggle back and forth over who controls the oil resources. We are getting two very different stories from each side.

How is it to be reporting there? It is a different situation from Tripoli where reporters’ movements are restricted by Gadhafi’s government minders, but how is it in terms of your safety and your access?   
It’s been very easy getting around here. The rebel forces are incredibly welcoming – they want to tell their story. It is the only real voice that we hear. We don’t hear any pro-Gadhafi voices in this town. That doesn’t mean they aren’t here. It’s just that they are not speaking out – probably because they are afraid to speak out.

As far as moving around, the checkpoints in this part of the country are all manned by rebel forces and they have been very welcoming to the press. Reporters have been moving down to Ajdabiya, and even Brega, to check out the fighting there for themselves. So there has been, at least in this round of attacks, first-hand reporting from people on the ground.

What is daily life like for people in Benghazi?  Is it safe to go out on the streets?  Are shops shuttered?
They are doing their best to get things back up and running. It is functioning pretty normally. There is traffic here during rush hour times, shops are open. It certainly isn’t completely back to normal. At the courthouse – which was really the epicenter of the protests – you have this new government forming itself. It’s also become the place where every late afternoon and evening people gather to show their support for Tripoli and the rebel forces there.

You also have a movement here to recruit young fighters. There are an estimated 5,000 new conscripts to the rebel army that are going to be armed and trained. Most of them have never fought in a military before or even touched a gun. So these are not experienced fighting forces and they are going up against Gadhafi’s well trained brigades and militias. 

How are the spirits of the opposition when Gadhafi says things like he will “fight to the death?” Are they getting discouraged or scared? 
People here feel very confident. I think that’s because the city fell as fast as it did and they seized control of it as quickly as they did. They now have what they call their first taste of freedom and they are not willing to give it up without a fight. And they don’t think they are going to have to.

One thing that seriously concerns them though is the possibility of the city being struck by fighter jets. They really have very little defense against that. There are some anti-aircraft guns in certain places around the city, but they aren’t being operated by people who really know what they are doing and will be unable to fight back against any kind of air attack.

They are concerned about that and that’s why they are discussing asking for a no-fly zone, which is seriously being  considered by the international community. It would be one surefire way to protect civilians on the ground here. 

But ultimately people here believe Gadhafi is going to go – it’s just a matter of time. 

What is their hesitation about asking for a no-fly zone?
People here are very uneasy about any kind of international intervention – specifically Western intervention, specifically United States intervention. And the idea that there could perhaps be U.S. forces on the ground is something most people here are vehemently opposed to. Many like the idea of a no-fly zone because it would protect them from air attacks, but they really don’t want to see boots on the ground.

They do talk about potential logistical support and perhaps even supply support for the military, including weapons and things.  

In Egypt there is a big concern that Islamist forces could seize power in former President Hosni Mubarak’s absence.  If Gadhafi were to eventually leave, are there concerns about Islamist forces stepping into the power vacuum there? 
You don’t get the sense that there is going to be an Islamist group that can take advantage of the current situation. You certainly don’t get that sense from the people who are control here in Benghazi.

This is a tribal country – it is made up of about a dozen tribes.  There certainly are Islamist influences in some, but it is not the dominant force in the politics here. It is much more regional and tribal than it is religious.

But the fact that there could be a power vacuum does seem like a possibility. Basically, during the last 40 years, Gadhafi has completely eliminated any form of civil society. No political parties, no municipal governments, no ability to really form any kind of independent party. So the people here really don’t know how to do that. So that’s going to be difficult. They are going to have to start from scratch. 

What about the problem of refugees? Are you seeing a lot of people trying to flee Benghazi? 
In Libya there is an enormous migrant worker population. They come in from all over – the largest population comes from Egypt, but there are also workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, China. Getting those workers out of the country has been extremely difficult. Here in Benghazi there is still quite a large group that is struggling. There are only so many ferries a day that come in and can take people away. 

Then on the Tunisian border, you see a lot of Egyptian workers escaping through that border and then finding themselves on the other side of where they want to be and needing transportation. 

But a lot of the migrant workers are very poor. They don’t have much money and are literally just carrying blankets and pick-axes and shovels. They are manual laborers. And they don’t have much support. We saw them on our way into Libya from Egypt, stopped at the border. Some of them don’t have their passports because their companies are based in Tripoli and they have been sent out to the east to do work and the companies have held onto their passports. So they are stuck in a limbo between Libya and Egypt. 

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