Libya Rebels Fight For Key Towns

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The tide may be turning against Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Rebels have advanced into two strategically important towns to the west and south of the capital, Tripoli. Still, Colonel Gaddafi was defiant in a broadcast speech to his country earlier today.

Muammar Gaddafi: [speaking Arabic]

Mullins: Gaddafi said we dance and sing and defy the bombing. The bombing will end. NATO will end. Reactionaries will be finished. The donkeys in the Gulf will be finished and the Libyan people will remain. The BBC's Matthew Price is in Tripoli. Matthew, Gaddafi sounds as confident as ever. Does he deserve to be?

Matthew Price: It's very hard to assess. This last 48 hour period has not been a good one for the government. I'm in a hotel next to government minders and not what we say, but our movements are controlled by the government pretty much. We can't go outside the hotel grounds unless they take us outside. And so we see government officials here, the deputy foreign minister is often around, the information minister. The mood of their body language and of their facial expressions hasn't changed that much, but I would say it's become slightly more negative in the last two days, and the reason is precisely as you say at the beginning, some advances to some fairly strategic areas by rebel forces. There's a big question, how strong is their hold on those areas and how long can they hold them, but for now they have made advances and they're closer to Tripoli than they ever have been before.

Mullins: And the strategic advances, are they all moving toward Tripoli?

Price: They are. Broadly speaking, the opposition forces have held control of the east of the country as a whole for several months now. They've pushed further west from those eastern bases like Benghazi, and from the west they've been moving in from the Tunisian border, and they're strategic aim for the last few months has been to try and push up from the west towards Tripoli and to sort of encircle it in that way. That at the moment is what they appear to have managed to do. But it's very difficult to say how firm their hold is. They've moved into the town of Zuwara, which is on the coast west of where I'm speaking to you from in Tripoli, it is the main link basically to the outside world, and at the moment it is cut off. But because it is such a strategic place, it also has an oil refinery there, you have to assume that the government is being honest when it says it is going to fight back hard and it wants it says to regain those areas it's lost in the last couple of days.

Mullins: So when the government says it's gonna fight back hard, how fierce is the fighting on both sides and do you know, Matthew, of any kinds of losses on either side?

Price: I'm not in those areas. It sounds like there has been some quite heavy shelling of Zuwara, which is the main coastal town I was mentioning. Zuwara was the site of an uprising at the beginning of the conflict and there was a brutal crackdown and many people died. It is conceivable that we might witness a repeat of that, but you know, it really depends a) to what extent the Libyan army is still with Colonel Gaddafi. No signs of mass defections yet. But it also depends on how good a job if you like, NATO has done. Now, NATO's mandate of course, is to protect civilians here. It's clear though that in doing so or rather in targeting Libyan army military installations, vehicles, personnel and the like, it's clear that he's also aiding the rebels. It helped them advance, it degrade the Libyan army in the areas that were taken in the last 48 hours.

Mullins: Okay, Matthew, one final question. There was news today that the Libyan interior minister had flown to Cairo, Egypt on his own private plane with nine members of his family. There's speculation that this was a major defection; some say no, he's just on vacation in Egypt. What do you know about this?

Price: Yeah, and there's actually also conflicting reports about exactly whether this man is the current interior minister or whether he is one of the previous interior ministers. We certainly believe that he has been in the past at least close to Colonel Gaddafi. As you say, he flew into Cairo today, nine members of his family with him. If it is a defection it's another sign of unease in the elite within Tripoli. If he has left he wouldn't be the only person in Tripoli worried about the situation here. I've talked to a handful of civilians, we've not been able to say who, they are weighing up their options, weighing up whether it might be time to start thinking about leaving the capital.

Mullins: All right, many thanks. The BBC's Matthew Price in Tripoli, thank you.

Price: You're welcome.