In Libya, rebels are eying the western mountain city of Gharyan as the next step in their advance toward the capital, Tripoli.
The Libyan government insists that the city is firmly on the side of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but NPR reporters who were recently taken there say the real extent of government support is unclear.
Regime Stages Pro-Gadhafi Display
Gharyan straddles a strategic mountain road, just 55 miles south of Tripoli, which is why it has become a key objective for rebels who are trying to advance on the capital. The rebels see Gharyan as a chokepoint where they could stop Gadhafi's forces from receiving supplies coming from the south.
In late February, some residents staged a brief uprising against the Gadhafi regime, a rebellion that was swiftly put down by the Libyan army.
In a bid to show local support for the regime, Libyan government minders took a busload of foreign reporters to Gharyan on Sunday, showing them a local market and staging a pro-Gadhafi demonstration. These demonstrations have become routine for visiting reporters: Demonstrators chant pro-Gadhafi slogans, wave government flags and display posters of the leader.
Sunday's demonstration was relatively small. Several dozen boys and men, some in army uniforms, gathered to chant as the reporters' bus arrived outside a small government compound. Inside, about a dozen women posed with weapons and said they were preparing to fight any rebel or NATO attack.
It seemed a small show of support for a city that is said to have several hundred thousand people.
Civilian Reports Deaths From NATO Bombings
The city itself looked strangely empty, with few cars or people on the streets. Some residents say many have left the city to avoid potential fighting.
Pro-Gadhafi towns often show their support for the government by hanging green flags or government posters on houses, but there were few of them to be seen in Gharyan.
About a block away from the gunfire at the demonstration, it was possible to talk with a shopkeeper without having a government minder present. He gave his name as Ismael and said he and his family have heard bombing in the surrounding area for four straight nights.
That tallies with NATO reports, which say airstrikes in the area have targeted military hardware, such as tanks and rocket launchers. But Ismael says the strikes have also killed civilians. He gestures down the road and says you can still see the craters from a NATO airstrike that hit three cars.
"Two kilometers, you can see too much hole inside the streets. And two men died there. Two men dead," he says.
Ismael says the men killed were civilians. He says his mother and father, who suffer from diabetes, have had to be taken to the hospital because of the stress of the bombing, and his children are afraid. He says he's heard civilian casualty statistics on the pro-Gadhafi state TV channels.
"I think 4,000 [were killed] here. Here and Zintan, because Gharyan [is a] big city," he says.
Zintan is about 50 miles to the southwest of Gharyan, in the hands of the rebels.
"Too much, every day, every day, every day, people die," he says. "Why, why, why, why?"
NATO does not acknowledge killing any civilians in the vicinity of Gharyan.
Nearby, Stronger Show Of Gadhafi Support
After the visit to Gharyan, the government minders took reporters to the small nearby town of Al-Asabi'ah, where there was a much bigger and more energetic demonstration in favor of the government.
Men and women stood outside houses along the road, waving their fists at the journalists' bus and brandishing guns they say they will use to fight enemies of the government.
In Al-Asabi'ah, reporters were told that a NATO airstrike early that morning killed one civilian man and wounded another, but accounts of the attack varied. Some said the attack struck an apartment; others said it was a farmhouse. When reporters asked to be taken to see the attack site, the local governor said that wasn't possible.
A government interpreter added that that was because the site "hadn't been secured." Later, a minder on the bus said that it wasn't possible to reach the site because there was no good road there.
Reporters were not taken to any military sites, so it's impossible to say what the Libyan army may have in store for advancing rebels.