Weighing the loyalties in Tripoli

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Meanwhile, the fighting continues in Libya today. The Gaddafi regime attacked rebels in Zawiya That's the closest opposition-held city to the capital, Tripoli. Reports from there say there were several people killed and hundreds injured. Pro-Gaddafi forces also tried to wrest control of an oil port that's in rebel hands. There were also reports of a deadly explosion at a rebel arms depot in the eastern city of Benghazi. The BBC's Kevin Connolly is in Benghazi. He says it's hard to assess the outcome of all the clashes.

Kevin Connolly: The nature of Libya is that it is a vast country stretched over a dessert. There are huge gaps between towns. It's a place of whisper and rumor at the best of times. And this is not the best of times. So there are reports of fighting down the postal highway that links Benghazi to Tripoli, perhaps a quarter of the way towards Tripoli, but we think they are fairly light, fairly brief engagements. It's almost as though the two sides are probing and skirmishing. Certainly, the revolutionaries believe that they only have to turn up in a town and spread their idea of revolt against Muammar Gaddafi and that then towns will fall, if you like, as much to the force of their ideas as to the force of their arms. I think they are meeting resistance in some places. People loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, and there are people loyal to him, are fighting back. It is very hard to judge the balance of those confrontations but, I think more of the country than not remains under the control of Muammar Gaddafi and, crucially, so does the capital, Tripoli, where more than one-third of the population lives.

Werman: So are these citizens doing the fighting, or are these soldiers that have kind of gone rogue?

Connolly: One of the interesting things about this confrontation, Marco, is it's not really clear to what extent Libya had a formal army. Over the years, Gaddafi distrusted the army so much he effectively disbanded the kind of things you or I might regard as a formal army and replaced it with what he calls [s/l: Kateevers???], sort of Brigades based on loyalty to individual generals or to Gaddafi's sons. Now, some of those people have defected to the rebels, but a lot of people doing the fighting on the rebel side, certainly, are civilians who lack trucks, they lack tactics, they lack training. There is a very big job ahead of anyone who wants to build a rebel army here. We're talking about months, maybe years, to do that. The quality of the armed force deployed on either side of this engagement is extremely hard to assess, as I say. Even intelligence experts are not sure to what extent Gaddafi retained a real formal military capacity and, certainly, the rebels will struggle to put credible forces into the field anytime soon. They're training people, they say. But, of course, that is not a quick job.

Werman: So, understanding this context of rumor and innuendo in Libya, it almost sounds like what you're saying is the rebels succeeded in controlling Benghazi, but now it sounds like they might not have the power and the wherewithal to complete their mission. Maybe the message of the rebels to the citizenry of Libya to fight Gaddafi isn't sticking.

Connolly: I think there is a real possibility that is the case. Certainly, when I first arrived in Benghazi it was, to some extent, still, I suppose, a hot location. There was a tremendous sense of passion and excitement and a conviction that somehow the momentum of revolution would spread 1,000 miles around the coastal highway of the Mediterranean from Benghazi to Tripoli and that somehow they were unstoppable, that this revolution would follow Tunisia and Egypt, and that Gaddafi would, somehow, inevitably fall. But this country is very different. Gaddafi has used a level of force that was not displayed in Tunisia and Egypt. He has, to some extent, I suppose, been preparing for this moment for a very long time. He has always been very suspicious of coups and plots against him. So the chance the rebels face here is an enormously difficult one, against a man who is a brutal and ruthless dictator utterly determined to hang onto power. The rebels believe that their message is popular. They are utterly convinced that Gaddafi has very little genuine support, but they do accept that he has the power of power of patronage, at least, of intimidation and, of some degree of armed force. I would say it is almost certain that in parts of the country at least, he does also retain genuine support and loyalty. After 41 years it would be surprising if he didn't. So the rebels do have a difficult job.

Werman: Finally, Kevin, given the uncertain strength of the opposition, have you spoken with anyone in Benghazi about their fear of reprisals?

Connolly: I'll tell you this, when we first arrived here we spoke to people and there was, I am not being negative about this aspect of it, a great joy and freedom. The kind of things that you and I take for granted, Marco, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to do as we please and say as we please about our leaders and vote against our leaders. Watching people discover those freedoms is an extraordinarily humbling and inspiring experience. Towards the end of the first week here, people have been saying to us very much the same kinds of things, but they've also been saying, ââ?¬Ë?please don't use my name.' You only say that if you think the old regime is still watching and still has some power over you. Now part of that is a habit of fear built up in 40 years. Part of it is a nagging doubt that somehow Gaddafi is not entirely done.

Werman: The BBC's Kevin Connolly in Benghazi, Libya. Thank you so much, Kevin.

Connolly: Thanks, Marco.