By The Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi’s main military compound in Tripoli Tuesday after fierce fighting with forces loyal to his regime that rocked the capital as the longtime leader refused to surrender despite the stunning advances by opposition forces.
Fighters poured into the area by the hundreds, carting off boxes of ammunition and firing weapons in the air in celebration. Several young men placed a head seized from a statue of Gadhafi under their feet and kicked it. One happily lifted it above his head while his comrades danced and yelled joyfully around him.
There was heavy fighting before the rebels broke through the green gates of the compound and shooting broke out from other parts of the large, sprawling complex. The body of a slain Gadhafi fighter with a gaping head wound was sprawled on the floor of one of two tents that had been used for pro-regime protests. The other tent was partially on fire.
Despite the euphoria, Gadhafi’s whereabouts remained unknown.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation who has known Gadhafi for year, said he spoke Tuesday by telephone with the Libyan leader who told him that he was “alive and well and still in Tripoli.” The report couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that it was clear the rebels were winning “important successes … but this is not yet an ordered or secure situation.”
“They have fought their way to the gates of Gadhafi’s compound, that is a historic achievement,” Hague told Britain’s Sky News. “It’s not over yet, but we are in the death throes of a despicable regime.”
The heavily fortified complex, which has been heavily damaged by NATO airstrikes for five of the six months since the anti-regime uprising began, is the most defining symbol of Gadhafi’s nearly 42-year rule and its occupation, a day after the rebels swept into the Libyan capital with stunning speed, comes as the opposition faced pockets of resistance and fighting rocked the capital.
Ayman Coumi, 21, joined a crowd walking out with boxes of weapons and ammunition; others drove out with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons.
Other rebels swarmed around Gadhafi’s former residence, which had been hit by a 1986 U.S. airstrike in retaliation for a bombing attack on a German disco in which two U.S. servicemen were killed. One man climbed onto a sculpture of a clenched fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet that had been erected after the strike.
Wael Abu Khris, 35, a shipping agent turned rebel fighter from Tripoli, was walking around the compound after the battle, carrying his Kalashnikov.
“I feel great satisfaction. We are at least free of this dictator. Libya is free at last. No more Gadhafi! It is time for a new Libya that will shine and go forth.”
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 the other. The teenager, who is from the embattled city of Misrata, said 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.”
It was not immediately clear whether Gadhafi or members of his immediate family were in the compound when it was breached, but the ferocity of the battle led many to speculate that the maverick leader may have been inside.
Gadhafi’s former right-hand man Abdel-Salam Jalloud, who defected earlier this month, told Al-Jazeera television that he thought the Libyan leader was moving around the outskirts of Tripoli, taking shelter at private homes, small hotels and mosques. Jalloud defected this month.
The battle for Bab al-Azizya, in which mortars, heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns were used, came hours after Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, made a dramatic appearance in Tripoli as a free man, thwarting Libyan rebel claims he had been captured and rallying supporters.
His surprise appearance underlined the potential for Gadhafi to strike back even as his grip on power seemed to be slipping fast.
The fighting began hours after Seif al-Islam, with a full beard and wearing an olive-green T-shirt and camouflage trousers, took a group of foreign journalists Bab al-Aziziya as part of a tour aimed at showing the regime still has support. At least a hundred men were waiting in lines for guns being distributed to volunteers to defend the regime. Seif al-Islam shook hands with supporters, beaming and flashing the “V” for victory sign.
“We are here. This is our country. This is our people, and we live here, and we die here,” he told AP Television News. “And we are going to win, because the people are with us. That’s why were are going to win. Look at them — look at them, in the streets, everywhere!”
It was not clear whether Gadhafi’s son, who turned up at the Rixos hotel, where about 30 foreign journalists have been staying under the close watch of regime minders, had escaped from rebel custody or never been captured in the first place.
His arrest had been announced on Monday by both the rebels and the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court, which has indicted him and his father. ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said the court never received official confirmation from Libya’s rebel authorities about the arrest.
The rebel leadership — which had said Seif al-Islam was captured without giving details on where he was held — seemed stunned. A rebel spokesman, Sadeq al-Kabir, had no explanation and could only say, “This could be all lies.”
He also said another captured Gadhafi son, Mohammed, had escaped house arrest. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council, announced the detention of a third Gadhafi son, al-Saadi, on Monday.
Riding in a white limousine amid a convoy of armored SUVs, Seif al-Islam took reporters on a drive through parts of the city still under the regime’s control, including Bab al-Aziziya, saying, “We are going to hit the hottest spots in Tripoli.” AP reporters were among the journalists who saw him and went on the tour.
The tour also covered the district around the Rixos hotel and streets full of armed Gadhafi backers, controlled by roadblocks, and into the Gadhafi stronghold neighborhood Bu Slim.
When asked about the ICC’s claim that he was arrested by rebels, he told reporters: “The ICC can go to hell,” and added “We are going to break the backbone of the rebels.”
Rebels said Monday that they controlled most of Tripoli, but they faced pockets of fierce resistance from regime loyalists firing mortars and anti-aircraft guns. Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, who was in Tripoli, said the “danger is still there” as long as the longtime Libyan leader remains on the run.
He warned that pro-Gadhafi brigades are positioned on Tripoli’s outskirts and could “be in the middle of the city in half an hour.”
An hourlong battle also erupted close to the Rixos Hotel on Tuesday morning, according to AP reporters staying there. The hotel and the area around it are under tight regime control, with scores of heavily armed soldiers stationed just outside it.
A new bout of fighting around the Rixos took place in the afternoon, with the AP reporters saying the sound of explosions and heavy machine-gun fire was much closer than during the morning fighting. A few stray bullets hit the hotel, they said.
It was not immediately clear whether the rebel attack was aimed at capturing the hotel.
The rebels have claimed control of much of the rest of the country outside Tripoli, and the city of Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown to the east of Tripoli, was the most important loyalist bastion to remain fully under his control.
Gadhafi’s forces fired off a short-range Scud missile Monday near Sirte — the second one fired during the six-month civil war. On Aug. 15, Libyan government forces launched one near Sirte that landed in the desert outside Brega, injuring no one.
A representative from Sirte on the rebels’ National Transitional Council told the AP on Tuesday that the situation in the city was extremely volatile because Gadhafi brigades had retreated to the city after fleeing the Brega oil terminal.
“There is no power in Sirte, we are getting in touch with the people inside only through satellite phones,” Hassan al-Daroui told the Associated Press in Benghazi.
He said that many people in Sirte had not even heard about the rebel advance into Tripoli and residents had told him that there were heavily guarded checkpoints all over the city and people were too scared to leave their homes.
“We are worried that Gadhafi wants to just kill as many people as he can before his demise,” al-Daroui said. “He knows he is finished, now he wants to bring Sirte down with him.”
Farther east from Tripoli, the rebels reported territorial gains at the expense of the regime forces. Mohammed al-Rijail, a rebel spokesman in Benghazi, said rebel fighters have advanced to al-Aqaila, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the oil port city of Ras Lanouf.
“There was no resistance and no fighting as Gadhafi forces retreated to Ras Lanouf,” he said.
The International Organization for Migration, meanwhile, said that a rescue mission to pluck 300 foreign nationals from the Libyan capital has been delayed by fighting. The Geneva-based group says an IOM-chartered ship will remain off the coast of Tripoli “until security conditions have improved and the safety of staff and migrants can be guaranteed.”
Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Maggie Michael in Cairo and Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.