Rebels seized Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli on Tuesday, firing in the air in celebration after hours of heavy clashes. But no one could tell whether he or his sons were still somewhere in the complex’s maze of buildings and bunkers.
Western governments, which have backed different opposition groups, said they could not be sure where the 69-year-old leader was but urged him to surrender after six months of civil war which have put an end to his four decades of absolute power.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reports that rebel fighters were shown in TV footages breaking into Gaddaffi’s compound and smashing his statue.
The neighborhood of the Libyan leader’s compound was for the better part of the day a war zone with guns booming even as remnants of Gaddafi’s loyal fighters attempted to stop the rebels. Some hunted through dozens of buildings, unchallenged, seizing weaponry and vehicles.
Heavily armed fighters had reportedly streamed into the capital on Tuesday morning in dozens of pick-up trucks to take part in the attack on Bab al-Aziziya.
The rebels’ envoy to the United Nations said the area was “totally in the hands of the revolutionaries”. One man shouted: “It’s over. Gaddafi is finished.”
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, looting and snatching ammunition and arms from depots, struggling and pushing to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine-guns and handguns were stored.
The BBC reported that rebels were going “room to room” and stripping the compound of any items of wealth. One man was seen carrying a drawer full of paintings, while another was carrying a fridge and “struggling with it.”
Meanwhile, hours after the compound storming, soldiers loyal to Gaddafi were retreating to the west towards the leader’s home town of Sirte.
Earlier on Tuesday, explosions and machine-gun fire were heard near Bab al-Aziziya, which had been damaged by NATO airstrikes. While the fighting raged, thick black smoke billowed over the Libyan capital city from several sources.
Shortly after rebel forces stormed, Ibrahim Dabbashi, the opposition’s envoy to the United Nations, predicted that Libya will be “totally liberated” within 72 hours.
Dabbashi said Tuesday a new rebel government would count on the international community for help in rebuilding the country and constructing new democratic institutions.
He said Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam Gaddafi had been in rebel custody but escaped.
A NATO spokesman said the situation in Libya remained dangerous, and that operations against Gaddafi’s forces would continue if they kept fighting. Col. Roland Lavoie said the Libyan leader’s forces had been weakened, and were losing strength due to defections and desertions.
A spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council said on Tuesday that the Libyan leader was either in or near Tripoli. He said, “We don’t think that he has left the country. We believe he is still inside Libya. We believe that he is either in Tripoli or close to Tripoli. Sooner or later, he will be found, either alive or dead and arrested, and hopefully that is the best outcome we want, or if he resists, he will be killed.”
Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s former right-hand man, Abdel-Salam Jalloud, told Al-Jazeera television that he thought Gaddafi was moving around the outskirts of Tripoli, taking shelter at private homes, small hotels and mosques.
Rebel spokesman, Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, said “danger is still there as long as Gaddafi remains free. Pro-Gaddafi forces are positioned on Tripoli’s outskirts and could be in the middle of the city in half an hour.”
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said he believed Gaddafi was still in Libya and that his forces remained a threat. He also said the United States was monitoring chemical weapons sites in Libya, amid worries that groups hostile to Western interests could try to seize stocks once built up by Gaddafi.
Libyans have displayed astonishing resilience and courage. The revolution is a compelling response to tyranny. Gaddafi’s 42-year rule has marked mainly by pain, suffering and fear for his nation. Now pride, confidence and hope are their allies.