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Gaddafi clings on -

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Gaddafi clings on

Broadcast: 25/02/2011

Reporter: Heather Ewart

The ABC's Ben Knight joins the program from Libya, where the regime continues to violently cling to


HEATHER EWART, PRESENTER: The bloodshed in Libya appears to be escalating as the tide of civil
unrest closes in on the country's dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Tonight there are reports government troops and mercenaries have massacred scores of people in a
town 30 kilometres west of the capital.

Elsewhere, rebel forces are taking control and vowing to fight until the despot stands down.

Our Middle East correspondent, Ben Knight, is in Libya tonight and I spoke to him a short time ago.

Ben, Gaddafi's grip on power does seem to be shrinking how much control of the country do you think
he has?

BEN KNIGHT: Well Heather, the reports that are coming in suggest yes, his grip on the country is
weakening. But it's a very, very slow progress and certainly, if you were living in Sydney at the
moment it's not the impression that you'd be getting at all.

But the country's effectively divided geographically right down the middle. The east appears to be
well under his control. Certainly in the two major cities, Benghazi and Tubrook, the opposition are
in charge. The army has either abandoned its post or joined the opposition. In fact, we've had
reports in Benghazi that the weapons that the army have left behind, or have been looted, are being
handed out to civilians.

Now, what they're doing that for, obviously, is to prepare for some kind of counter-attack from
Muammar Gaddafi. If he manages to rally his forces, or bring in some more mercenary troops and
decide that he's going to go and crush this rebellion, then they're preparing themselves for it.

So, there are reports also, that in the west of the country there are more towns that are falling
to the opposition. But as I say, it's a slow process and everyone in those cities is preparing for
a counter attack.

HEATHER EWART: Is the country effectively in civil war?

BEN KNIGHT: Well it's pretty close to it. You, there's no real unifying force among the opposition,
and I think that's the distinction. This is certainly a civil conflict. What you have are towns
that have basically taken their own defence. They've protected themselves, or they've kicked out
the army by themselves. They've defeated the Gaddafi forces by themselves.

Now, there's no unifying leader, there's no unifying force. There's just, as we've seen in
obviously the other Middle Eastern and North African countries that have had their revolutions, an
organic movement, a widespread movement that just says 'this is not the government that we want.'
But obviously in those countries it took place extremely differently.

HEATHER EWART: Now, Gaddafi is vowing to fight to the end; what do you think are his chances of
clinging on to power?

BEN KNIGHT: Well it's difficult to know. We know that during this conflict he has been using
mercenary soldiers. Now, could that be because he doesn't trust his own army. Quite possibly. Why
would he not trust his own army? Well, like a lot of Middle Eastern dictators, he's actually set up
the defence forces, deliberately along those lines so there never is one, unified, military force
who can topple a dictator.

As we saw in Egypt, that is the case. The army was always strong. The army was always behind the
throne and when Hosni Mubarak quit, the army took over. And it's actually been a remarkably smooth
transition; I've just been in Egypt.

But in Libya that's not the case. You have different elements of the defence force that are linked
to the various tribes. They argue amongst themselves, they're in conflict amongst themselves. So,
rallying those to launch a counter-attack and try and crush this opposition is going to be

But he's a very, very wealthy man. He has access to weapons and he has access to mercenary troops.
But I think, what we're probably seeing is, because there hasn't been a defining moment where he's
been able to move back into Benghazi, and crush it, that it's not going to be as easy as perhaps he
was hoping, and it is going to be difficult for him to hang on I think.

And the question becomes, after that, what state is the country in? This is not an Egypt where the
military will simply move in, or there's a movement of people who say 'listen we're just going to
make our own government.'

This is a very tribal country and the tribes are probably going to be trying to fight amongst
themselves, at least to establish their own control.

HEATHER EWART: We're hearing reports of widespread bloodshed and that that's getting worse; does
that mean that more and more Libyans, and foreigners for that matter, are trying to flee Libya and
cross the border?

BEN KNIGHT: No question, no question. The border that we've seen yesterday and this morning, are
the border between Egypt and Libya, is operating 24-hours, and there is a constant stream of
traffic going in, and out. And that is continuing on the other side of the country as well. A
second land border is now taking refugees on the Tunisian side, the western side of the country.
Egypt has said that it is going to set up an air-bridge to bring out its refugees.

I think going (inaudible) options, by sea, to Malta.

I think anyone who has not been able to get out of the country by now, particularly in the west, is
going to be making every effort to do so.

There are thousands upon thousands of people coming out, some of them expatriates, some of them
Libyans who are refugees. And Europe is going to be asked a pretty big question in the coming
weeks: 'how many are you willing to take?'

HEATHER EWART: Gaddafi says he's determined to fight on; are the revolutionaries just as determined
to do that as well?

BEN KNIGHT: Well I think, having come this far, it would be suicide to turn back. They know that.

But, let's also be clear, there has been some very, very intense fighting and very intense fighting
from the opposition as well. It's obviously very difficult to say, without having your feet on the
ground, in Tripoli.

The images that we've seen coming out of Tripoli and Benghazi and these other cities, show that
there has been bloody battles. You know, intense battles and deadly battles on both sides. And now
that the opposition is, in fact, armed with some of the weapons the military (inaudible), has some
of the military on side, they know very well what the alternative is if they back down and it's
hard to imagine them doing so.

HEATHER EWART: Ben Knight, we'll let you get on with it. Thank you very much for that update.

BEN KNIGHT: Thanks Heather.