By CHARLES LEVINSON in Tripoli and MARGARET COKER in Tunis
AUGUST 23, 2011, 2:44 P.M. ET
Rebels Overrun Gadhafi Compound
Fierce Street Fighting in Tripoli; Leader's Whereabouts Are Unknown
Libyans poured into streets surrounding Moammar Gadhafi's fortress-like compound in Tripoli on Tuesday, after rebels captured it following fierce street battles against forces loyal to the longtime ruler.
Streets around the Bab al-Aziziya compound rang with mortars, heavy machine-guns and antiaircraft guns throughout much of the day as rebels took up positions around the symbolic heart of Col. Gadhafi's regime.
By late afternoon, gunfire ceased and rebels and Tripoli residents poured onto the streets. An overpass near the complex, on which rebels had taken up positions just an hour before, thronged with people.
Inside the compound were scenes of pandemonium after rebel fighters broke through one of the gates.
Heavily armed rebels stormed and seized Moammar Gadhafi's Tripoli compound Tuesday and even reportedly invaded his home, bringing what seemed a certain end to the despot's nearly 42-year regime. Video courtesy of SkyNews. Image courtesy of Reuters.
Thousands of fighters and civilians poured in and began looting and grabbing just about anything in sight. Men raced through the area with armloads of rifles or carried out large panel television sets. One hauled off a gold-plated rack for holding liquor. A father was there with a pre-teen son. Rebels and other who had grabbed some of what appeared to be thousands of guns inside the compound fired into the air in celebration.
It wasn't clear whether Col. Gadhafi or members of his immediate family were in the compound when it was breached by the rebels, but battle's ferocity led many to speculate that the longtime leader may have been inside.
The rebels' celebration within Bab al-Aziziya's walls came after two days of whipsawing reports out of the Libyan capital over what appears to be the final phase of Libyan rebels' six-month battle to oust the world's longest-tenured current ruler.
On Sunday, rebels swept into Col. Gadhafi's last stronghold city and the center of his nearly 42-year rule, and celebrated on the city's central Green Square.
But battles continued Monday. Forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi conducted lightning strikes on rebels, several neighborhoods appeared to remain in the control of loyalist soldiers and residents spoke of snipers situated in several neighborhoods.
Throughout Tuesday, forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi continued to battle through Tripoli's densely populated neighborhoods, attacking and defending patches of territory across the seemingly divided capital.
Specific districts of Tripoli have become notorious for their antiregime protests during the six months of Libya's conflict, while other neighborhoods have remained forcibly allied with the leader—loyal men and families who owe their careers, tribal ties and social positions to Col. Gadhafi.
These divisions have erupted in increasingly bloody street fighting that threaten a vacuum of power and a Balkanized breakup of this city of two million people.
Ibrahim Dabbashi, who represents rebel leadership as the deputy Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed rebels had taken the compound.
"Citizens are free to walk in there now," he said at a news conference at Libya's mission to the U.N. in New York. "We just have to take care of any explosives that may have been left in there."
He said he expected Col. Gadhafi, his family members and other high officials to be in hiding in the city's underground tunnels—built by the Libyan leader for security purposes in recent years, he said—or in private homes. Mr. Dabbashi expressed confidence they would be captured "within 72 hours."
Taking Col. Gadhafi's complex, which has already been heavily damaged by North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes, would mark one of the greatest symbolic victories for the rebels.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, 19, walked down one of the main roads of the compound with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in one hand and a Kalashnikov in another. The teenager, who is from the embattled city of Misrata, told the AP he felt "an explosion of joy inside."
"I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi's house," he said. "Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
Mahmoud Shammam, a Doha-based spokesman for the rebels' interim council, was more cautious.
"We don't know who is inside Bab al-Aziziya. We believe that there is someone there and that he is leading a fierce battle. It is a symbol. This is the final castle of Gadhafi," he told the AP.
The battle for Bab al-Azizya came hours after Col. Gadhafi's son and heir apparent dealt an embarrassing blow to rebels who had earlier claimed to have him in their custody.
Seif el-Islam Gadhafi appeared late Monday at a hotel where the government is housing foreign journalists in Tripoli. Speaking at an impromptu news conference, he denied reports that he had been arrested over the weekend when rebels rushed into the capital. Both he and his father are wanted on charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
Loyalist gunmen appeared to rally around Seif el-Islam's unexpected appearance, which marks a public-relations debacle for the rebel leadership, who disseminated news of his arrest to Western allies.
In New York, Mr. Dabbashi said Seif al-Islam had been captured but was able to escape after he called members of his personal security guard. He said rebel fighters had been "over confident" about the security situation.
U.S. military officials said the U.S. believes the rebels control most of Tripoli but that the exact percentage under their control is unclear and is changing by the hour.
One senior U.S. military official put the share of Tripoli controlled by the rebels at 90% but said pockets of pro-Gadhafi resistance in densely populated areas made the outcome of the battle for the city "murky."
"The situation is fluid," said Col. David Lapan, the Pentagon's spokesman.
Officials said the Obama administration hopes within days to begin releasing some of the Gadhafi regime assets frozen by the U.S. since February. The frozen assets, totaling some $37 billion, are intended to be used to support Libyan government institutions and for reconstruction efforts, officials said.
In Dubai, U.S. and British diplomats huddled for another day with rebel representatives to put the finishing touches on a post-Gadhafi stability plan. Officials said the U.S. and its allies are advising the rebels on how to quickly restore basic government services and protect critical infrastructure, including oil assets.
NATO and European Union officials said Tuesday that while it was too early to declare victory in Libya, they had started talks on giving aid and unfreezing key Libyan assets in overseas banks.
"This is not over yet," Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said at a press conference.
NATO is operating under a mandate from the United Nations, valid until Sept. 25, to protect Libyan civilians from the air and enforce an arms embargo. Its planes have flown some 20,000 sorties over the Northern African nation. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Tuesday that regardless of events in Libya, "there will not be boots on the ground" and the military coalition will follow the UN.
NATO ambassadors met Tuesday afternoon in private. Leaders from the EU, UN and Arab League will meet Friday in New York, said Mrs. Ashton.
Jubilation turned to uncertain disquiet late Monday in Libya's capital, with persistent reports of random shootings in the capital, with some pockets of outright fighting. Jeff Grocott has the latest on The News Hub.
While it is unclear how many Gadhafi loyalists are left in the capital, those fighting in the streets are most likely the ideologically honed irregular forces that the leader has used to quell internal dissent and protect his regime for years.
Residents say these government militias are conducting the fighting, along with members of Col. Gadhafi's elite military units that appear to be regrouping in Tripoli. The loyalists are now squaring off with hastily trained fighters from Tripoli's far-flung districts who fled the capital earlier this year and have been recruited as part of the rebel vanguard to take the capital.
The rebels started organizing the so-called Tripoli Brigades in early June, choosing men with strong family and social ties from the city and then training them in the remote Western Mountains, located some 160 kilometers from the capital.
Mohammed Abu Sbeaa, a 21-year-old fighter in the Hamer Brigade, named after Tripoli's prerevolutionary parliament building, said he went through six weeks of training after joining the unit in mid-July. On the same day he showed up at the brigade's barracks, he was issued a uniform and given a soldier identification number. They started training immediately, he said.
Each morning they woke up at 5:30 a.m., went for a 45-minute run, followed by stretching and calisthenics, he said. That was followed by daily drills in marching and formations, which Mr. Sbeaa said was intended to transform civilians with no military experience into soldiers accustomed to taking orders and working with discipline.
"It got us used to listening to our commanders and put us in a military mind-set," he said.
The regime fighters still operating in Tripoli appear to be the well-trained paramilitary forces that made up a parallel security structure in Col. Gadhafi's Libya and that have terrorized the capital while fighting has raged in other parts of the country.
Called "revolutionary committees," these irregular units have been the bastion of Col. Gadhafi's dictatorship over the past 40 years, existing parallel to the established military and the police. Their role has been to be both political commissars for the regime and security agents in local neighborhoods and districts.
The members of these militias largely come from Col. Gadhafi's own clan, giving them great motivation to stick with the leader as his regime crumbles.But within 90 minutes of setting up that new headquarters, they came under attack and had to relocate. By Tuesday morning, violent battles were engulfing Tripoli, in what many predict will be a drawn out protracted and bloody struggle.
—Adam Entous, Christopher Rhoads, John W. Miller, Leila Hatoum and Alan Cullison contributed to this article.
Recruitment into the revolutionary committees would take personal or family connections, and the men would be put through rigorous ideological tests. Under Col. Gadhafi's leadership, the rewards for service were immense: financial windfalls for lower-level committee members from the collection of security payments among neighborhood shopkeepers, and commercial partnerships for the commanders of these units.
Since the revolt in Libya erupted this spring, these armed revolutionary council militias have been deployed in heavy force across Tripoli. Brandishing automatic rifles, they screech through districts of the capital in Toyota Tundra pickup trucks, swarming day or night like through neighborhoods known for defiance of Col. Gadhafi.
Residents say these plain-clothes gunmen are responsible for many of the mass arrests that have occurred in Tripoli over the past six months. In February and March, they were blamed for shooting unarmed protesters and raiding hospitals full of wounded demonstrators, taking them from operating wards.
Over the past few days, these same militias have been battling armed locals with mounted heavy machine guns on their trucks, according to residents. Some have also set up defensive perimeters around regime-friendly districts, they said.
Col. Gadhafi seized power in a military coup in 1969. Over the past two decades, he has consciously pulled resources away from the regular army and invested in the revolutionary committees, as a way to mitigate the possibility of a coup against him, according to diplomats and former Libyan military advisers.
In many ways, Col. Gadhafi's mistrust of his military appears to have been well placed. This week, with his capital under threat, the head of his presidential guard signed a secret deal with the rebels and didn't deploy his men to fight, according to rebel commanders.
Meanwhile, the elite military brigade commanded by Col. Gadhafi's son Khamis pulled back from its defensive perimeter around Tripoli over the weekend, allowing the rebels to advance eastward into the capital.
The swift advance was a boon for the rebel-led Tripoli Brigade, whose fighters aren't very experienced. In their Western Mountains' training facility, recruits for the brigade attended afternoon classes on how to use the various weapons in the rebel arsenal, including AK-47 and FN assault rifles, heavy-caliber antiaircraft machine guns and antitank rockets. They also learned basic tactics, how to advance and retreat, and raid a building safely.
Their instructors were Libyan expatriates who had served in the Libyan military during its war with Chad in the 1980s. They fell out with Col. Gadhafi during the war and formed what is known as the Libyan Salvation Front, one of the oldest Libyan opposition groups. Many went to the U.S. in exile, and then returned to Libya after the uprising broke out in February, said Mr. Sbeaa, the rebel fighter.
Yussuf Mohammed, a senior coordinator for another Tripoli Brigade, the Qaqaa Brigade, said about 100 of his brigade's 600 fighters received an advanced three-week course in urban warfare tactics given by Qatari special forces.
When rebels in the Western Mountains attacked nearby Gadhafi-controlled villages in late July, the Tripoli brigades' fighters were dispatched to battle to give them a taste of real-life combat.
In mid-August the Tripoli Brigades were joined together under a single division commander.
When Zawiya, the coastal city 30 miles east of Tripoli, fell earlier this month, the Tripoli Brigades were deployed forward to a town closer to the capital, where they nervously awaited the orders to attack. Those orders came on Sunday, with Tripoli's Qaqaa Brigade spearheading the assault from Zawiya. Mr. Sbeaa's brigade saw action the following morning, pushing into the capital through the southern suburb of Azzizziya to establish a bridge head for the rebel forces in central Tripoli.
Write to Charles Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Margaret Coker email@example.com