TRIPOLI – Tripoli celebrated into the early hours of Wednesday after rebels overran Moammar Gadhafi’s compound, despite finding no sign of the Libyan strongman or his sons.
Several hours later pro-Gadhafi media quoted him as saying he had abandoned the compound in a “tactical withdrawal” after it was wrecked by NATO bombing attacks.
The speech gave no indication of where he had gone.
The attack on the Bab al-Azizya compound followed three days of fighting in the capital which the head of the rebel National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said had left more than 400 killed and 2,000 wounded.
After five hours of intensive battles with Gadhafi loyalists outside, fought with mortars, heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns, the rebel force was inside. They beat and killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled away crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
Without specifying if he was talking of both sides, Jalil told France-24 television that some 600 pro-Gadhafi fighters had been captured but the battle would not be over until the Libyan leader himself was a prisoner.
Celebratory gunfire rocked the city when news spread that the insurgents had breached the walls of compound in the center of the capital and had sent Gadhafi’s forces fleeing.
But Gadhafi loyalists still held out in parts of the city, and were in control of the Rixos Hotel, headquarters of some 30 foreign journalists accredited to the regime, preventing any of them from leaving.
Jalil also said three areas of the capital were still resisting, including Abu Slim, from where half-a-dozen mortar bombs fell on Bab al-Azizya late Tuesday.
Rebels said Gadhafi loyalists in his birthplace of Sirte, the last major regime bastion remaining, had fired a missile at rebel-held Misrata, hours after negotiations began to try to secure a surrender of the city.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with an RPG slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is hiding underground inside the complex.
“Wasn’t he the one who called us rats. Now he is the rat underground,” he said. Asked how it felt to be standing inside Gadhafi’s compound, the fighter who came to Tripoli two days ago from rebel-held western city of Misrata replied:
“It’s an explosion of joy inside. I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi’s house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something.”
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand new rifles still in their paper wrappings. Scuffles broke out, pushing and shoving to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine guns and handguns are stored. They came out drenched in sweat from the struggle.
Some used a rifle bayonet to crack open a green box that contained guns and pushed each other to lay their hands on the booty.
Ali Sameer, a 45-year-old Tripoli resident, stood nearby with three brand new rifles resting on his legs.
“They are for my friends. I don’t even know how to fight,” he said.
Abdul-Salamah Alawah, 29, who arrived on a boat from Misrata last night, loaded a clip into his handgun.
“This one is especially for Gadhafi,” he said.
The rebels carted out boxes of the weapons and ammunition, and some drove off with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on the back. One drove out with a golf cart, another walked out with a fan.
Others were busy ripping down posters of Gadhafi.
Ayman Coumi, a 21-year-old fighter inside, said there were five hours of heavy fighting before they broke through the gates. “We entered from three sides,” he said.
Near Gadhafi’s old home with the statue outside, the body of a dead regime loyalist lay inside a large tent with glass windows shot out. It was partly covered by a blanket, his head sticking out with a gaping gunshot wound. A second, much larger tent was on fire.
Gadhafi has a famous penchant for Bedouin-style tents, meant to symbolize his roots as a simple desert dweller. He received guests in the tents inside Bab al-Aziziya.
In the rebels’ eastern base of Benghazi, where residents too poured onto the streets in celebration, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said there had been no trace of Gadhafi or his family in his compound.
“Bab al-Azizya is fully under our control now. Colonel Gadhafi and his sons were not there; there is nobody,” Bani said. “No one knows where they are.”
An AFP correspondent saw rebels breach the surrounding cement walls of the vast complex and pour inside, where the bodies of a number of apparent Gadhafi fighters were lying, as were wounded people.
As rebel leaders proclaimed they had “won the battle,” fighters in the compound fired automatic weapons into the air, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and raiding the armory for ammunition, pistols and rifles.
Rebels were seen ripping the head off a Gadhafi statue, stepping on it and kicking it.
One young man, a green bandana around his head, picked it up and held it above his head like a trophy, flashing a huge smile.
Another climbed on a huge sculpture of a fist gripping an airplane - a symbol of a US attack on the compound in 1986 - trying to break off a piece.
The fighting for Gadhafi’s headquarters was the most intense in the city since rebel fighters in their hundreds came surging into the capital three days ago.
The sky was filled with the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the overhead roar of NATO jets, though it was unclear if they carried out air strikes.
Oil hub seized
On the eastern front, Libyan rebels Tuesday overran the eastern oil hub of Ras Lanuf on the road to Sirte, spokesman Bani said.
Bani said he hoped insurgents would soon reach Bin Jawad, a hamlet just east of Sirte and almost halfway between Benghazi and Misrata.
The assault on Bab al-Azizya came only hours after Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, appeared at the compound to refute reports that he had been arrested by the rebels.
“Tripoli is under our control. Everyone should rest assured. All is well in Tripoli,” he said, smiling broadly and flashing the V-for-victory sign.
“I am here to refute the lies,” the 39-year-old said about reports of his arrest, and accused the West of waging a “technological and media war to cause chaos and terror in Libya.”
Seif, like his father, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. He said Gadhafi and his entire family were still in Tripoli, denying rumors he had fled but without specifying the exact location.
Gadhafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim claimed to the Syrian-based Arrai channel that more than 6,500 “volunteers” had arrived in Tripoli to fight for the regime and called for more.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had agreed with his US counterpart Barack Obama to continue military action against Gadhafi under the March UN mandate until he lays down his weapons.
In Doha, NTC number two Mahmud Jibril said Libya’s transition “begins immediately” and that Qatar would host a meeting on Wednesday to organize $2.4 billion in aid for the country.
“We will build a new Libya, with all Libyans as brothers for a united, civil and democratic nation,” Jibril told a press conference,
“This is the new Libya where every Libyan works as a beloved brother, hand in hand, to serve the interests of the nation to ensure equality and justice for everyone,” he said.
“We have to be transparent in front of the whole world. Now we have to concentrate on building and healing our wounds,” he added.
He told the youth of Libya “who brought us our dignity back,” that “this is your revolution and you will have to continue the march to finish the revolution... to participate in the creation and establishment of the Libyan state in order to move Libya forward.”
The Arab League for its part invited the NTC to take up Libya’s empty seat at a special ministerial meeting to be held Saturday in Cairo, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said.
Meanwhile radical Latin American countries still held a torch for Gadhafi, with Nicaragua saying it would offer him political asylum if he asked for it.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would continue to recognize only Gadhafi as the legitimate leader of Libya, while Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino slammed “a clear invasion” by western powers aimed at grabbing Libyan oil.