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Libyan Rebels Retake City With Allies' Help

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Rebel Libyan fighters has reclaimed the eastern city of Ajdabiya. That's seen as a major advance in their uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. The rebel's victory comes one week after coalition air strike started enforcing the U.N.- mandated no-fly zone.

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NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us from eastern Libya. And, Eric, what are you seeing? What's going on?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Scott, I'm on the entrance to Ajdabiya. Ajdabiya has fallen to rebel forces after air strikes yesterday, last night, and early today from British and allied forces. It's allowed the rebels to finally push forward after nearly a week of a stalemate.

Right now, people are celebrating, firing off their weapons, beeping their horns. Some people are starting to pour back into the city, Scott. I'm standing next to a burned out wreckage of a tank that's been turned over. A bit of a tense celebration as Ajdabiya (unintelligible).

SIMON: So the gunfire that we're hearing is celebratory, right?

WESTERVELT: Most of it is celebratory, yes. Yeah. They're happy that they've finally taken this town. I just met some business people trying to get back into the city. Local vendors. There was a chicken vendor going back in. He had some 300 chickens in the back of his truck. He stopped and gave half a dozen to rebels holding RPGs, thanking them for their work as he drove on.

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He's going to try to restart his business today, but admitted he's still worried about security. He's not sure what he'll find. He's not sure if his store will even be there, but he wanted to come back and try to restart his business.

SIMON: So, the rebels seem to think that a little touch of western air power really helped them.

WESTERVELT: It made all the difference. They weren't able to really do anything without that western air power help. They were stuck here at the edge, and I count about 10 tanks and armored personnel carriers from Gadhafi's forces that are now turned over, burning, and destroyed. And it took allied air power to destroy that.

The big question Scott now is, you know, can they learn any other tactical lessons from the last engagement, or are they going to just charge ahead without communication, without support, without a plan, without proper weapons.

Some rebels are already sort of pouring ahead they say past Ajdabiya, and that's just what they did a few weeks ago when they stretched out their lines. They didn't have a plan, and it backfired on them because the slightly better trained Gadhafi forces easily pushed them back.

SIMON: Well, you anticipate - I guess the world's next question, what do they do next?

WESTERVELT: Well, some commanders we talked to, Scott, say they need to stop here, regroup, have a plan, coordinate. Others are just pushing ahead. We just saw two multiple launch rocket systems being pulled by a truck. They look functioning and had rockets in them, and they were being pulled ahead through the town, and they said they were going to set up a front line on the other side of town.

So it's not clear that they actually are really waiting. It looks like some are just moving ahead.

SIMON: And are folks there happy that the rebels have shown up and have apparently prevailed?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. We are seeing some civilians returning now, although it's mostly fighters. But some are coming back and they say they're nervous, but they want to get back to their house, their home and see what's left of it.

Here's a family passing me right now waving the victory sign. They're piled in the back of a pickup truck. They're cheering on the rebels. The rebels are cheering back. There's a guy with an AK-47 standing on top of a burned out tank right in front of me, and he's shouting, encouraging people on.

SIMON: NPR's Eric Westervelt in eastern Libya. Eric, thanks so much.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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