By Darlene Superville/The Associated Press
VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. — U.S. officials were in frequent contact Monday with Libyan rebels as they claimed control of most of the capital city of Tripoli. A top American diplomat said the whereabouts of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s were still unknown, but the Pentagon said officials believe he’s still in the country.
Following the rebel’s lightning advance on Tripoli, President Barack Obama urged Gadhafi to recognize his time is over in Libya. And Assistant Secretary of State Department Jeffrey Feltman said it was “only a matter of time” before the besieged ruler is history.
Still, Feltman acknowledged in an interview from Cairo Monday morning that U.S. officials do not know where Gadhafi is.
Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said that U.S. officials thought Gadhafi was still in the country. “We do not have any information that he has left the country,” he said.
Amid celebrations among rebels and sympathizers on the streets of Tripoli, Feltman said he thought it was “very clear that the rebels are winning.”
“The rebels are taking over the city. They are clearly taking over the institutions,” Feltman said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He also said U.S. officials have been told the rebels have seized control of state television.
Asked whether he believes the al Qaida terrorist network will gain new footing during a power vacuum in Libya, Feltman said the first step in any post-Gadhafi setting is to “prevent some kind of cycle where people act out their own retributions,” as happened when Saddam Hussein fell in Iraq.
“A lot of that sectarian mix that existed in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq doesn’t exisit here in Libya,” Feltman said. He also said that “the overwhelming vision that we are hearing” from people across Libya is that “they want a Libya that is moderate, that is secular.”
An administration official said U.S. officials were talking regularly Monday with the rebel-led Transitional National Council, as well as U.S. allies around the world.
In Washington Monday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said officials were carefully assessing developments.
“Clearly, there’s a fluid situation,” Whitman said. “We are monitoring the situation closely.” The Pentagon has provided well over 60 percent to 70 percent of the intelligence flights in support of NATO operations involving Libya. The U.S. led airstrikes before turning the mission over to NATO forces.
A vacationing Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Sunday night that Gadhafi should relinquish power to stop the violence and bloodshed of six months of civil war aimed at toppling his autocratic regime.
“The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people,” Obama said. The U.S. has said that it would work closely with the rebels.
After a day of dramatic developments, Obama said the situation in Libya had reached a “tipping point” and control of the capital was “slipping from the grasp of a tyrant.”
“The surest way for the bloodshed to end is simple: Moammar Gadhafi and his regime need to recognize that their rule has come to an end,” Obama said. “Gadhafi needs to acknowledge the reality that he no longer controls Libya. He needs to relinquish power once and for all.” Obama issued the statement after conducting a conference call with members of his national security team, who had provided him with updates throughout the day.
Libyan rebels who raced into Tripoli on Sunday met little resistance as Gadhafi’s defenders melted away and his 42-year authoritarian rule quickly crumbled. Euphoric fighters celebrated with residents of the capital in Green Square, the symbolic heart of the fading regime. Gadhafi’s whereabouts were unknown, though state TV broadcast his bitter pleas for Libyans to defend his regime.
Opposition fighters captured his son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, who along with his father faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. Another son was in contact with rebels about surrendering, the opposition said.
“Tonight, the momentum against the Gadhafi regime has reached a tipping point. Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant,” Obama said in the statement. “The Gadhafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”
The United States has joined other countries in recognizing the the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government in Libya.
Obama called on the rebels “at this pivotal and historic time” to demonstrate the leadership needed to steer the country through a transition by respecting the rights of the Libyan people, avoiding civilian casualties, protecting state institutions and pursuing a transition to democracy that is “just and inclusive” for all of the country’s people.
Obama said the U.S. would remain in close contact with the TNC and work with its allies and partners around the world to protect the Libyan people and support a peaceful shift to democracy.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were also kept updated throughout the day, officials said.
Associated Press writers Mark S. Smith and Erica Werner in Vineyard Haven, Mass., and Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor, Pauline Jelinek and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.