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Libyan Rebel Cease-Fire Offer Rejected; Middle East Unrest

Aired April 1, 2011 - 18:00   ET


ANTHONY SHADID, THE NEW YORK TIMES: And there was going to be repercussions of basically executing us there at a checkpoint, that we were somehow -- I try to say this reading value into it -- but we were somehow worth something.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The only woman in the group, Lynsey Addario, says she was punched, she was groped. She wasn't raped.

And to our viewers, You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: a cease-fire offer from Libya's rebels promptly rejected by the Gadhafi regime. But as battles rage, there are hints, hints that a political deal perhaps is possible.

A CNN exclusive, we're taking you inside a Libyan city under siege, an extraordinary firsthand look at the carnage under way in Misrata.

And a day of protests across the Middle East. Troops turn their guns on the crowds in Syria. Witnesses report many casualties.

Breaking news, political headlines all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Moammar Gadhafi's forces are besieging and battering the city of Misrata. There are fears right now that a massacre could happen.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen was there. He was able to reach the city on a humanitarian ship. Fred is back on the island nation of Malta right now. He's safe and secure.

He's joining us now with more on this exclusive look at the fighting and the destruction that he eyewitnessed.

It's a pretty remarkable story, Fred, that you saw.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is a pretty remarkable story, because of course Misrata is really an island enclave within Gadhafi territory. And you're absolutely right. It's a city under siege and a city where many people fear that there could indeed be a massacre if, in fact, pro-Gadhafi forces do prevail here.

Now, we have to say that the opposition forces there are badly outgunned. They have AK-47s if they're lucky. Most of them actually have makeshift weapons, things like machetes or guns that they have somehow manufactured themselves.

And so because of all the fighting that is going on in downtown Misrata, many people are trying to flee the city center, but they really don't have anywhere to go because that whole area is under siege. Here's what we saw when we were there.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): As heavy fighting rages in downtown Misrata, many residents have fled from the tank and artillery shells raining down on their neighborhood, but they have nowhere to run.

The opposition-held city of Misrata is encircled by pro-Gadhafi troops. Masud el-Masoudi (ph) says he barely managed to get his family out of the city center and into the school on the outskirts.

"All the houses next to ours were knocked down in the fighting," he says. "People were killed in the houses right next to ours, including women and children."

Constant barrages of artillery, tank and mortar fire have clearly traumatized, especially the children. And as urban combat destroys more and more of downtown Misrata, many foreigners who came here to work during better times are now stranded.

Some were hoping to leave via Misrata Port, but they can't get out, so they have ended up here at a makeshift refugee camp near the port. It was set up when the fighting started and now stretches for several miles.

(on camera): All along the road leading to Misrata Port, you find thousands of refugees, most of them from African countries, and they are stuck here, they're stranded here. They can't get anywhere. The worst thing about it is, first of all, all the refugee camps are makeshift. They have basically no food, no water that they are getting from the international community.

What they are getting, they are getting from the people of Misrata, and they are right in the middle of the combat zone. They gave us this piece of shrapnel. They say artillery shells fell right near the area where the refugees are.

(voice-over): Cries for help have so far gone unheard as the situation of those caught here gets worse every day. While Misrata remains under siege, food, water and medical supplies are further depleted and desperation grows.


PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, one of the reasons why the people there are so afraid that a massacre could take place if the Gadhafi forces do prevail is that they're even shooting at humanitarian aid ships. The ship that we were on that was bringing food and medical relief to the Port of Misrata, about 15 minutes after we left the port, there was heavy artillery shooting at exactly the position where that ship was. The artillery shells landed about 100 yards away from the ship that we had been on about 15 minutes earlier.

So it is a very, very difficult city to get into. And the people there are absolutely desperate, Wolf.

BLITZER: Did you see any evidence of NATO air support for these rebels, for the civilians in Misrata while you were there?

PLEITGEN: Yes, I did. We did hear some NATO planes overhead. There were some airstrikes that the opposition forces told us were taking place as we were there. Most of those happened sort of in the early morning hours and at night. You would hear planes overhead.

Now, what they were telling us is that in recent days NATO has been doing less shooting and more and more sort of overflight -- surveillance overflights. One of the things that the opposition fighters told us is that they wish that the NATO planes would take more aim at Gadhafi's tanks, would be, if you will, less sort of afraid to take into account civilian casualties in case they do hit these tank in the middle of the city.

Of course it's a very difficult undertaking, because we know that Gadhafi is hiding his tanks under trees, is hiding them in schools and other areas. But the opposition forces say they would like to see more airstrikes, rather than less. But we did see evidence of NATO planes overhead and also NATO planes striking targets in Misrata -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I think there's been a change in the rules of engagement since NATO took full command, as opposed to the United States. We will continue to watch that part of the story. Fred, thanks for your excellent reporting.

It's not just Misrata, the brutal fighting raging across Eastern Libya right now. And there's also all the sudden some talk of a potential cease-fire. The regime is rejecting truce terms offered by the outgunned opposition, but at least on one front, the rebels seemed to be on the offensive, at least on this day.

Let's go straight to Benghazi. CNN's Reza Sayah is standing by live.

What's the latest from where you are, Reza?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it looks like these opposition forces are a little bit more coordinated and organized than they were over the past couple of weeks. And the opposition is saying the credit goes to these defected army units that are now leading the charge in the front line with volunteers that are strictly under their command-and-control.

Opposition forces now keeping back those so-called amateur fighters, those untrained fighters, some of them that were coming into the front lines with machetes, knives, sometimes no weapons. Opposition forces also keeping back a lot of the journalists in Ajdabiya, which is the final defensive position.

So it appears to be a more businesslike and professional operation. And opposition leaders are saying they were effective today in stopping this surge by the regime forces that had cost the opposition some territory, about 100 miles of territory in key cities. Right now, the fighting, according to the opposition, taking place in Brega. And that's where it appears there's a stalemate. Wolf, we will see what happens tomorrow.

BLITZER: How scared are people in Benghazi? It's the second largest city in Libya. It's the home of the opposition, as we all know. How scared are they that the Libyan regime of Gadhafi will launch a full-scale attack on Benghazi?

SAYAH: Well, ever since the regime, the regime forces made a push towards Ajdabiya and regained some territory, there has been some concern here in Benghazi.

The question, what is there to stop the regime forces from moving onto Benghazi? There are reports of some people leaving, heading out. They are counting on this new push by the opposition forces to stop that surge, and they're all counting on those airstrikes to start.

The opposition forces did get a boost overnight with a fresh supply of weapons, a convoy of rocket launchers and heavy artillery being delivered to the front line. The opposition leaders telling us these are not weapons from outside states. They're refurbished weapons that were from those old defective army units.

But make no mistake, Wolf, even with the way things stand now, even with this fresh supply of weapons, these opposition forces do not have the capacity, based on what we're seeing, to confront a professional army, like the Gadhafi army.

BLITZER: They would definitely have to rely on the NATO airpower if that's going to happen.

All right, thanks very much for that, Reza Sayah, in Benghazi for us.

The rebels want the sieges lifted in Misrata and other cities as part of any truce. But the Gadhafi regime apparently views that as a nonstarter.


BLITZER: And joining us from Tripoli, our own Nic Robertson.

Nic, is there any optimism at all that any of these back-channel, front-channel talks will really result in a cease-fire?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't think there's any immediate hope in it, Wolf.

I think that certainly there are a lot of people here that wish that diplomacy would pick up, that wish there were some back channels that were working. It really depends who you speak to. Certainly, the government spokesman has roundly dismissed the rebels' offer of a cease-fire, calling the conditions silly and impossible, saying it was impossible for the government to pull out of the towns that he says the opposition is told that they have to do as part of the terms of the cease-fire.

So, on the surface at least, we're not seeing it. I am talking to people that say that there is some kind of diplomacy going on. But to be perfectly honest, Wolf, it's hard to see it at the moment. But, certainly, there appears to be some kind of space opening for diplomacy when we're hearing this talk about possibilities of a cease- fire -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, in the last day or two, have the authorities in Tripoli let you and your fellow journalists out at all? Have you gone out to see anything, and if you have, what are you seeing?

ROBERTSON: We have been out, but it's been carefully controlled. Friday is the day of prayers. And today is the day when we're most strictly controlled and not allowed out of the hotel even close to prayer time, even to go to the nearby stores, when they would reopen after prayers.

I think what we're seeing here is a continuation of what we have seen over the past week, a mood of anticipation of what may be coming. There's still plenty of traffic on the streets, still the lines at the gas stations. But our ability to move around freely and go and talk to whomever we want, it is just not there.

So, we see a very limited frame of the picture here, Wolf. But the bit that we do see, it is clear that the government is maintaining a very control of the situation, and not a hint today of violence or street protests around the time of Friday prayers. And people close to the government are telling me that's an indication that they're winning the situation here, that people are rallying around the leadership, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nic, Nic Robertson in Tripoli for us, we will stay in close touch. Thank you.


BLITZER: Explosions of rage across the Middle East. Protests turned deadly in Syria, where witnesses say troops fired into the crowds.

And cracks in Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle. As close advisers jump ship, can Libya's leader even count on his own family members?

And CNN's Matthew Chance takes all of us up in an Air Force tanker on a mission to keep allied aircraft in the air over Libya.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we are doing now is lying in this area where the (INAUDIBLE) operator does the business. It's at the back of the plane. And you can see just over here another F-16 fighter plane is attempting to dock with the aircraft to receive the fuel. Take a look.



BLITZER: Unrest, some of it very bloody, raging across the Middle East today. At least seven people are reported dead and dozens wounded in Syria. In city after city there, thousands of protesters that took to the streets. Witnesses say troops used tear gas, clubs and bullets.

In Jordan's capital, Amman, police worked to separate pro- and anti-government demonstrators, trying to head off the violence that led to dozens of casualties only a week ago.

Tens of thousands of people turned out in Yemen for rival rallies. Anti-government protesters demanded the ouster of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for three decades. His supporters vowed to fight for him.

In Cairo, massive protests led to the ouster of Egypt's president less than two months ago. Now the crowds are back in Tahrir Square, mainly liberal activists, fearing they have been marginalized by some of the Islamists.

Joining me now is CNN's Hala Gorani. She's watching all of this unfold in Amman, Jordan.

Hala, where does it look like all of this unrest is heading right now?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I find it interesting that in Syria in particular today, several days after the president addressed the nation in a speech in the parliament building in Damascus, despite knowing the risks they were facing, protests broke out really across the country, Wolf.

And this is something that we haven't seen before. It's not the size of the demonstration in Syria. It's the fact that we saw protests in places and in locations we haven't seen before, including a suburb of Damascus called Duma, where we saw most of the reported deaths.

We are not able to independently authenticate the video. We're not able to independently verify the figures. But from all the sources we have been speaking to, today was an extremely deadly day in Syria. And despite having promised some level of reform through governmental decrees promising that committees would look into lifting the state of emergency in place for almost 50 years, security forces cracked down very heavily.

In Yemen, you mentioned as well tens of thousands of people. In Cairo, people still coming out on the streets of the capital there, because they're concerned that all they have fought for might be for naught if the military government in place now reneges on some of the promises it's made.

BLITZER: You know, Hala, some of the Middle East analysts here in Washington, Americans who have studied the region for a long time, have suggested to me that perhaps President Bashar al-Assad is afraid if he makes any concessions, that will be seen as a sign of weakness and then his enemies will pounce on him even more vigorously.

I wonder if -- you have studied Syria for a long time. I wonder if you think that's a credible analysis.

GORANI: Some analysts are saying the opposite. They're saying if President Bashar al-Assad had come out on Wednesday and had looked the Syrian people in the eye, instead of addressing Parliament in what looked like a very staged and manufactured event, if he said, I heard you and I know that you have grievances that are legitimate, then perhaps, some analysts have told me, that these demonstrations wouldn't have occurred, or at least that they wouldn't have occurred in the kind of numbers that we saw and in the numerous places and cities, including Daraa in the south, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, but also other places, as I mentioned, where demonstrations haven't occurred before.

So it really depends who you talk to. It's very difficult to predict these days, of course, in the Middle East what effect a speech or an announcement will have. But this really seems born from anger and frustration from these protesters who said that the president completely ignored their demands. And that is what some of them say brought them out on the streets today.

BLITZER: In Egypt, we saw President Mubarak had been in business for 30 years. He didn't have the will to order his military to go out and start killing fellow Egyptians.

Does President Bashar al-Assad, like Gadhafi in Libya, have the will, if necessary, to go order his own military to go out there and kill fellow Syrians in big numbers?

GORANI: Right now, we're seeing security forces doing most of the shooting, again, according to the reports coming to us from inside Syria. We're still unable to report from inside the country.

But the structure in Syria is different. The leadership, the regime is a religious minority. Many of the heads of the military are also members of this religious minority. They have a lot more to lose if this regime falls than, for instance, in Egypt, where it's a majority Sunni country, where the president, where the military and the people are all from more or less -- the big majority, at least, from the Sunni sect of Islam.

It's very different in Syria, where there, there's a sense that if this regime crumbles, then it crumbles and takes down with it this entire power structure. So what analysts do say about Syria is that the regime is not being threatened as much as in other places, and that it will fight a lot harder to maintain power, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hala Gorani, we will stay in very close touch with you. She's joining us from Amman, Jordan.

The reported burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida has deadly repercussions in Northern Afghanistan. We're going to tell you what happened, who lost their lives.

And a closer look at the people in Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle. Brian Todd is standing by live. He has an in-depth report. You're going to want to see this.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We're learning more about disorganization and lack of training among the Libyan rebels. What happens if the rebellion collapses completely? A leading scholar on the Middle East, Professor Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins University, he is standing by live to talk to me about it.

And America taking a backseat to other NATO allies -- does the coalition have the firepower to enforce the no-fly zone?


BLITZER: Our top story: Libya's rebels outgunned and overmatched. They have laid out some terms for a cease-fire.

Joining us now, Professor Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Fouad, thanks very much for joining us.

It looks like this war has certainly taken a turn against the rebels over the past few days. Is that your assessment?

FOUAD AJAMI, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, that's really the assessment and the fact that they have offered a cease-fire, that now the free Libyans, as I call them, that the free Libyans have offered Gadhafi a cease-fire doesn't really bode well for the military effort of this rebellion.

Look, Wolf, we know this. The justness of a cause and the nobility of a cause is no guarantee of its success. These people, as you describe them, they're outgunned, they're outmatched. There ordinary people, there are teenagers rushing to the front with no military preparation whatsoever fighting the forces of a tyrannical regime that's been in power for four decades.

NATO will either has to rescue this rebellion, or we are going to witness its terrible failure.

BLITZER: Well, do you think NATO has the political stomach right now to do what presumably it has to do if this rebellion is going to succeed?

AJAMI: You know, Wolf, I think NATO and of course the dominant power within NATO -- let's not forget the United States -- I believe we have crossed the Rubicon. We have committed ourselves to the defeat of Moammar Gadhafi.

And wars have all kinds of aims, declared aims, undeclared aims. Everyone really is now committed to the undeclared aim of the end of the Gadhafi regime. Now, if we don't want to bring down this regime, I think may God help the poor Libyans.

And I think -- I always like to go back and look on the history of the American effort in Kosovo. To bring down Milosevic, to destroy Milosevic, we had a bombing campaign that lasted 79 days and 30,000 sorties, and, finally, we brought Milosevic to The Hague to his trial that he deserved.

If we're not committed to this, if we allow this dictator in Tripoli, if we allow this man in his bunker to win, I think the consequences for the region and the consequences for American power and the consequences for the idea, for the idea that there are limits to what tyrants can do will be severely defeated.

BLITZER: You know the Pentagon now says that U.S. attack aircraft will no longer participate, that it's going to be up to the other NATO allies to engage in air strikes. The U.S. will provide some protective cover, some surveillance, some radar. But it's not going to be involved in attacking positions anymore. Does that encourage you?

AJAMI: No, that doesn't. And I think we have to understand that we do have a reluctant warrior at the helm. Not so much the president, though we can -- we can talk about him and his ambivalence about this war.

When you have a defense secretary, Robert Gates, who seems to give every indication that he doesn't believe this is a war worth prosecuting, who always is talking about the other two wars we're engaged in, meaning Afghanistan and Iraq, I think it doesn't -- it tells us that we have -- we have come to a very delicate situation in this endeavor in Libya.

BLITZER: If Gadhafi holds onto power or, let's say he just gives up his own power to one of his sons, Saif al-Islam or someone else...

AJAMI: Right.

BLITZER: ... takes over, what message does that send to this revolution, to this unrest that's exploding throughout North Africa and the Middle East?

AJAMI: Well, the message is the counter revolution wins. And if the message is that, if you are a bloody regime, if you are a regime of the likes of Moammar Gadhafi, of the likes of Bashar al-Assad, as it's likely to be, that if you actually go out and kill enough people, that you can stay in power. And the consequences for the idea that there could be peaceful change in the Arab world. This is one of the great changes. I think we can argue that this is the second most important change in international relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moving the Arabs away from the psychology of victimization and violence, moving them to the idea of peaceful change was a very important gift of the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution.

If we allow this man in his bunker in Tripoli to get away with murder, I think we will live through the day. But sometimes the consequences of what we don't do and what we don't want to do become clearer to us with the passage of time.

BLITZER: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says some members of Congress who recently have come back from Damascus -- I don't know if she's referring to John Kerry, the chairman of the foreign relations committee or Nancy Pelosi, who was in Damascus, or others, have suggested that Bashar al-Assad is, in fact, a reformer moving in the right direction. Do you see any evidence of that?

AJAMI: No. I love that when -- when at the time Secretary of State Albright went to Damascus, she returned with the -- with the early verdict that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. And we were told, of course, that Bashar Assad can click on, that he was the head of the Syrian computer society. Because of course, the idea is you can't be a computer geek and a killer at the same time.

So we've always been talking about Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. He turned out to be more tyrannical, more authoritarian, more willing to kill as a first option than his late father, Hafez al-Assad. I think Hafez al-Assad would be proud of the son he bequeathed the Syrians. I think there is nothing of reform in this man. He is a monster in his own right.

BLITZER: Well, you say that. He's more of a monster than Hafez al-Assad? Do you remember what happened in Hama (ph) back in 1982?

AJAMI: And believe me, if we come to a situation where this -- this younger man, this man, this Bashar al-Assad, if he really is up against it, I think he will see the will to resort to violence will be just as sharp as that of his father.

I think Hala Gorani was talking to you. And of course, you, from your career in print journalism, long before television journalism, you know the facts of Syrian society.

So Bashar al-Assad and his clan and his family and the Alawad (ph) brigade commanders around him, the intelligence barons around him, they have told us in every way they can that for them power is everything. And no reform in Syria would be allowed. It's only the people who go and call on him in Damascus, call on Bashar. And he -- he knows English. His father didn't. He utters a few words about reform, and we announce that we are satisfied that he is a man committed to reform.

BLITZER: Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Full disclosure, as I always do, my former professor at SAIS. Fouad, thanks very much for coming in.

AJAMI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: A look at those closest to Moammar Gadhafi, their personalities, influence and rivalries with each other. Brian Todd is standing by with an in-depth report.

And a crucial part of enforcing the no-fly zone is keeping the fighter jets in the air. We're taking you along on an area refueling mission and speaking to some of the people at the controls.


SGT. JOE KOCH, U.S. AIR FORCE: Today, yes. We have only refueled F-16s for the United States. That's not to say we couldn't refuel F-16s for our coalition partners.


BLITZER: Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper is reporting that a senior adviser to one of Moammar Gadhafi's most powerful sons is in London for talks. A source close to the Libyan leaders tells CNN he might relinquish power but only -- only -- to a member of his inner circle. So what do we know about the people in that inner circle? We asked Brian Todd to do some digging. Brian's here.

What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that inner circle is shrinking with some high-level defections recently. But it's still a tight-knit, loyal and very dangerous group.


TODD (voice-over): There's a phrase in Arabic for them, "Al a haima" (ph), "people of the tent," the closest confidants a leader can have. Moammar Gadhafi is said to be so paranoid, his regime so opaque, that it's hard to know who's really in the inner circle.

Analysts say with the high-level defections of foreign minister Moussa Koussa and others, Gadhafi is now relying more on his own family for advice.

(on camera) And any look at the family begins with Moammar Gadhafi's second oldest son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. He was once thought to be one of the leading reformers in the regime, but since the uprising began, he's been one of his father's most visible defenders, threatening the opposition and saying the regime would fight until the last bullet.

(voice-over) CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend has met with Saif Gadhafi and says his demeanor belies his ruthlessness.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: He's well known to the western diplomats. He's well known inside the government and security forces. And it's clear that Colonel Gadhafi has begun to, if you will, train -- he's the heir apparent in waiting. The question will be, will he be able to retain control in light of the current chaos?

TODD (on camera): You've met with him. What are your impressions of him? Is he -- does he have some gravitas?

TOWNSEND: He's very bright. As I said, he's western educated. He speaks beautiful English. Very capable of charming and engaging diplomats and the media.

TODD: Saif Gadhafi has a shadowy figure by his side who's also trusted by his father, a man named Mohammed Ismail.

(on camera) CNN's Nic Robertson and our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank, who have met with Mohammed Ismail, describe him as a key aide to Saif Gadhafi, always by Saif's side when needed, an aide trusted with delicate and dangerous assignments who's paid a high personal price, including once getting detained by a foreign regime.

(voice-over) Saif Gadhafi's chief rivals for influence with his father are said to be his own very powerful brothers, including Mutassim Gadhafi, Muammar Gadhafi's national security adviser, who's also met with Hillary Clinton. And Khamis Gadhafi, leader of the brutal 32nd Brigade. Khamis held a jet-setting internship in the U.S. with engineering firm AECOM until the fighting broke out.

(on camera) Also very close to Muammar Gadhafi, Abdullah al- Senussi, the notorious head of military intelligence. He's Muammar Gadhafi's brother-in-law, his link to the Lockerbie bombing plot as well as the massacre of inmates at Libya's Abu Salim prison in 1996, and the bombing of a passenger plane over Niger.

(voice-over) Opposition leader Guma El-Gamaty knows Senussi's reputation well.

GUMA EL-GAMATY, LIBYAN OPPOSITION LEADER: Abdullah Senussi has been groomed by Gadhafi from day one, 40 years ago, 42 years ago when Gadhafi came to power. He is totally loyal to Gadhafi. He does not -- he never questions any orders that Gadhafi gives him. He has been used in a very brutal way to deal with any opposition.


TODD: Will Abdullah al-Senussi, Mohammed Ismail or the sons stay with Muammar Gadhafi until the bitter end? Guma El-Gamaty says Abdullah Al-Senussi will probably die with Gadhafi.

But the sons, he says, are different. El-Gamaty believes they'd get out if they had the opportunity to get access to the money and lifestyle that they can enjoy outside Libya -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this Mohammed Ismail, the aide to Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, he's the one, supposedly, in London...

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: ... meeting with others, trying to negotiate some sort of deal?

TODD: That's according to "The Guardian" newspaper. Mohammed Ismail did tell CNN earlier this week that he was going to travel to London for personal reasons. We called the British foreign office. They wouldn't confirm or deny that he's there.

You know, there -- also there were cell phone calls that we made to him that were not answered. A Libyan government spokesman isn't commenting.

He could be key here, because if he's negotiating some kind of a deal for Saif, that may mean something very, very significant in the days ahead. There's no indication now that he is or that he's even there, technically. But keep an eye on this guy.

BLITZER: I wonder if he doesn't succeed in this negotiation if it collapses, if they let him go back to Tripoli or they just arrest him for whatever crimes he may have committed. We'll see what happens.

Brian, thank you.

High over the Mediterranean. We're showing you the complex mission of keeping some of those fighter jets in the air near Libya. Stand by.

And do other NATO countries have what it takes to enforce the no- fly zone?


BLITZER: The U.S. military may have scaled back its role in the Libyan air strikes. But it still has plenty of planes in the air and the tanker aircraft to keep them up in the skies. CNN's Matthew Chance went along on a crucial aerial refueling mission.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get your nose up, sir.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Striking images of the highly-skilled missions keeping coalition war planes, like this F-16 fighter, in the skies over Libya. We gained exclusive access to this U.S. Air Force refueling sortie over the Mediterranean. Commanders say a small but critical part of enforcing the no-fly zone.

(on camera) OK. Well I've come up to the front of this huge strategic tanker with the pilots up here. I'm here with Holly Diesselhorst, who's the commander of this aircraft. She's going to tell us about what the mission is here today.

CAPT. HOLLIE DIESSELHORST, U.S. AIR FORCE: This airplane is amazing. It is an air refueling tanker. So our primary mission is to give fuel to pretty much the fighter aircraft who are enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya. So that is probably our biggest strategic importance right now. We're giving gas to those receivers so that they can stay over the air space and stay over Libya for longer periods of time before they have to return to base.

CHANCE (voice-over): Flying in broad loops well outside Libyan air space, the tankers based in eastern England have completed dozens of sorties since the air campaign began.

Built in the 1960s, they're essentially modified cargo planes with a highly specialized crew, like the boom operator who works on his belly in a cramped pod in the aircraft tail.

(on camera) What we're doing now is lying in this area where the boom operator does the business. It's at the back of the plane. And you can see just over here another F-16 fighter plane is attempting to get this aircraft to receive them. Take a look.

(voice-over) The Libyan conflicts may seem a long way down. But this precise high-altitude maneuver is having a direct impact.

(on camera) Are they all United States F-16s?

KOCH: Today. Yes. We have only refueled F-16s of the United States. That's not to say that we couldn't refuel F-16s from our coalition partners.

CHANCE (voice-over): But this time, at least, there are no takers. The coalition partner with by far the most aircraft over Libya clearly has the biggest need.

Matthew Chance, CNN, with the U.S. Air Force over the Mediterranean Sea.


BLITZER: Here's a key question. Does the coalition, NATO's coalition have the fire power and the will to enforce the no-fly zone without the United States taking the lead? Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is standing by to take a closer look.


BLITZER: As the U.S. cuts back its role in the skies over Libya, especially in terms of air strikes, NATO must step up to take care of some of those offensive missions. We asked our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, to take a closer look.


BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After destroying much of Muammar Gadhafi's air defenses, the U.S. brought in highly specialized aircraft: the AC-130 gunship and the A-10 warthog. Both fly low and slow, doing the crucial job of attacking pro-Gadhafi troops and weapons with the precision needed to avoid hitting civilians.

ADMIRAL GIAMPAOLO DI PAOLA, NATO MILITARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Today we can announce that NATO has full responsibility of Operation Unified Protector. STARR: But there are fundamental questions about whether NATO warplanes can really make it all work. The A-10 and the AC-130s will stop flying as the U.S. moves into a support role, leaving those attack missions to other NATO countries such as Britain and France.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Our allies do have good airplanes and good laser-guided bombs and so forth, but a lot of this is in the quick response that you get from integrating your sensors with your communication systems, with your actual combat aircraft, and it's something that the United States has had a lot more practice doing in the modern era than our allies.

STARR: Already, the Obama administration has left itself an out.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We have made provisions to put in standby United States capability that could be called upon.

STARR: Senator John McCain isn't buying the Pentagon's line.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: At a time when the Gadhafi forces have literally, tragically routed the anti-Gadhafi forces, that's when we announce that the United States is abdicating its leadership role and removing some of the most valuable assets.

STARR: But U.S. officials insist the NATO mission will be as aggressive as the current U.S.-led one. Said one senior administration official, "NATO will conduct the military operation in a way that is very similar to the way the coalition has conducted it up to this point and no more, but also no less."

Not everyone is convinced.

O'HANLON: I think we're going to have to step up our involvement, not find ways to scale it back, even if our goals are limited. And therefore I'm a little befuddled by the administration's confidence that it can entrust this mission more and more to the Europeans.


STARR: And that is the unanswered question right now, Wolf. If you are going to have NATO and the European nations take over this crucial mission of attacking Gadhafi's forces and equipment on the ground so they cannot attack civilians, does NATO really have what it takes? Do they have the will? Do they have the firepower to do the job that the U.S. has now stepped back from -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The will, the political will. That's the key issue. Because it's a lot of -- it's got to act unanimously, consensus, all of these NATO allies, and I wonder if some of those allies like Germany and Turkey have that will right now.

Barbara, thanks very much.

The CIA has agents on the ground in Libya, we are told, but what are they doing? John King standing by to talk to the agency's former chief. That's coming up at the top of the hour.

Plus, the CEO of a well-known Internet company caught up in an animal rights controversy involving some graphic video.


BLITZER: The Web-hosting company GoDaddy welcomes the buzz it generates with its racy Super Bowl ads, but now the CEO of the company finds himself in the middle of a very different type of controversy. CNN's Lisa Sylvester's joining us now. She's been following the story.

Lisa, it all revolves around a video of an elephant hunt in Africa, isn't that right?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. You know, this video has gone viral.

Bob Parsons is being ripped for not just shooting the elephant but also posting the video online. Now, I spoke to him today, and he says he was actually caught off guard by the backlash.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): In the video, shot in Zimbabwe, Bob Parsons shows what appears to be elephant tracks through the crop fields of a local farmer.

BOB PARSONS, CEO, GODADDY: This is a prime example of the damage these elephants have been causing in the sorghum field. Just hammered. They've been here three nights in a row. We're hoping they come back for a fourth. And if they do, well, we're going to be here to greet them.

SYLVESTER: Parsons, the CEO of, and his group, are waiting. He fires two shots, killing the elephant. Parsons posted the video online. Too graphic to show in its entirety here.

The clip includes a segment with AC/DC playing in the background and local villagers wearing bright orange GoDaddy hats.

No surprise animal rights activists are all over this. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has given Parsons its first ever Scummiest CEO of the Year Award.

JEFF KERR, PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS: This was a premeditated execution of an elephant so that it could be filmed and he could use it to publicize his company. This isn't about feeding villagers. That's why he handed out his GoDaddy company hats to these villagers while they were butchering the animals.

SYLVESTER: It might seem odd that a CEO of a successful Web- hosting company is doing this during his vacation time. But Parsons, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam vet, makes no apologies. In fact, he says in the video, quote, "Of everything I do, this is the most rewarding." Parsons says he's helping the villagers by scaring away problem elephants that trample their farming fields, and at the same time he's providing meat to the impoverished people.

PARSONS: The voices not being heard from are the villagers. If you ask them is this a good thing, is this bad ting, they would tell you absolutely it's a good thing.

SYLVESTER: What Parsons did is not illegal. But PETA, in a letter, points out there are other ways to shoo away the animals, including beehives on poles and low-cost fences.

And why make a video of it? Animal rights activists are urging people to boycott The company's competitors are now offering cut-rate deals to GoDaddy's customers to switch to their sites.


PARSONS: But Parsons is not one to shy away from controversy, and he insists this is something that is helping the villagers, protecting their crops. This is actually his sixth trip to Zimbabwe, the second trip where he shot an elephant, and he says he plans to keep going back next year and the year after that and after that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's another question, though. He made the video. Why didn't he decide to post it online?

PARSONS: You know, honestly, he says he didn't think that there would be this backlash. And he really does -- he says that he really sees this as a humanitarian gesture.

I asked him point blank, was this a publicity stunt? And he says no. You know, their marketing strategy, for anyone who's familiar with their ads, is really to use cute models. So he says not part of a publicity stunt, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester, thanks very much for that report.

That does it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.