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Eastern Libya appears to be under opposition control

From Ben Wedeman, CNN Correspondent
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Gadhafi 'not in control in east Libya'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Ben Wedeman is reporting from an undisclosed location in eastern Libya
  • Wedeman says opposition leaders appear to be in firm control of much of the region
  • One man tells CNN that a large part of the army has joined the anti-government forces
  • Most of the traffic on the roads appears to be Egyptians leaving Libya

Editor's note: CNN's Ben Wedeman is the first Western television correspondent to enter and report from Libya during the current crisis.

Eastern Libya (CNN) -- Groups of men in civilian clothing, armed with weapons ranging from shotguns to machine guns, guarded streets in eastern Libya on Monday as opposition leaders appeared to be in firm control of much of the region.

Opposition groups formed "popular committees" to maintain some sort of order after pushing out government forces in a spreading revolt against longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi, who has led the north African country since 1969.

One man who identified himself as a resistance leader said he has been meeting with Libyan military commanders in the region, and that a large part of the army has joined the anti-government forces. An ammunition dump was burning in the nearby desert, apparently set afire by retreating government forces.

There appeared to be no single, unifying figure in charge of the revolt. People of all ages and tribal affiliations seemed to be taking part. One man told CNN that when government forces began using live ammunition against the protesters, it turned the whole community against them.

The Libyan uprising follows similar revolts that toppled leaders in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt since mid-January. But Gadhafi's government has put up more resistance than those leaders did.

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Witnesses in Tripoli have told CNN that warplanes and helicopters were conducting airstrikes around the capital. Libya's government denies that the aircraft were used against protesters, telling the state news agency that the strikes targeted other ammunition depots in remote areas.

But two Libyan fighter pilots defected to Malta with their Mirage F1 jets Monday, Malta's government announced. A Maltese government source said the pilots defected rather than follow orders to bomb their fellow citizens.

And people in eastern Libya told CNN that hundreds of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa had been killed or captured while fighting for Gadhafi. Opposition leaders say they are concerned that pro-Gadhafi forces may try to retake the area, so the men on the street remain armed.

Many businesses were open Monday, allowing some semblance of normal life in the aftermath of the revolt. Electric power appeared to be functioning in most places, but mobile telephone service was limited and internet service had been down for three days.

But most of the traffic on the roads appeared to be Egyptian workers leaving the country. An estimated 2 million to 3 million Egyptians live in Libya, and about 15,000 had crossed back into Egyptian territory by Monday, border guards told CNN.

 
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