Gaddafi flees compound as Libya's rebels hunt their foe
Published 24/08/2011 | 01:05
The massive green gates were blasted open after seven hours of ferocious fighting and exultant rebels poured into Bab al-Aziziya, Muammar Gaddafi's fortress and the symbol of the regime's bloody resistance in Tripoli.
The fighters scoured through the complex shouting to each other that they had trapped the dictator in his lair.
Frantic early searches failed to find the quarry and the revolutionaries were last night trying to locate a network of tunnels supposedly hidden inside the complex.
Meanwhile, they tore down the regime's green flag from the top of his home, which had been bombed in 1986 by US warplanes, and replaced it with the banner of the revolution.
For the revolutionaries, frustrated and angry that their entry into the capital had not resulted in the immediate vanquishing of their hated foe, the fall of the bastion gave cathartic relief.
They hugged each other amid repeated cries of "Allahu Akbar". One of the fighters climbed on to the statue of a clenched fist, a symbol of defiance against the West, and raised his hand in a victory salute. Another statue, that of Colonel Gaddafi, was dragged out of a building by rope, the head torn off and tossed from hand to hand.
Last night, fires broke out in several parts of the Bab al-Aziziya complex. Some had been set off by exploding ordnance, but some others had been started by rebel fighters and spread out of control.
Walking off with three vases, Amr Kalim Hassani said: "Some of the Shabab were stupid, they started fires, they are destroying people's properties."
But not all of the regime's forces had left the sprawling compound and groups emerged to carry out ambushes, leading to running battles.
The violence continued to rise in tempo in the aftermath of the storming of the complex with volleys of mortar rounds and missiles arcing across the city.
Some of the most ferocious clashes were around Green Square, now renamed Martyr Square, the scene of a victory party the night the rebels had come into the capital.
Gaddafi troops, who had taken up vantage points in high buildings, began to pour out steady fire below, forcing rebel positions to fall back.
As the Shabab, the volunteers of the uprising, were driving along the roads flanked with burnt vehicles, blowing horns, they came under sniper fire, causing some of their "technicals" - gun mounted flat-bed trucks - to crash.
Soon the sounds of celebration from the streets were mingling with the sound of sirens of the city's medical service, already under acute strain.
Malik Abdullah Bagdis, pausing in between shooting his Kalashnikov into the air, cried out: "We have got into the cave of this animal. We shall find him, he cannot hide from us for long, where can he run now?"
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, walking down one of the main roads of the compound with a rocket-propelled grenade in one hand and a Kalashnikov in another, said: "I feel an explosion of joy in my heart."
The 19-year-old student-turned-revolutionary from Misrata, which had withstood a long and painful siege by the regime, added quietly: "I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gaddafi's house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
Yesterday also saw a series of Nato air strikes focusing on Bab al-Aziziyah, as well as naval fire. But one thing Nato could not help with was the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi.
At the Alliance's base in Naples, from where the Libyan operation is being run, spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie responded: "We don't know. I haven't a clue." He added: "Our mission is not over until the regime's forces return to their barracks."
What now for Libya?
Despite the rebel takeover of his compound, Muammar Gaddafi remained at large last night amid speculation that he has disappeared down a warren of secret tunnels.
The compound is believed to be riddled with a network of underground bunkers and tunnels. "There was a network of labyrinthine passageways, generators and living quarters," an Irish engineer who worked in Tripoli said.
An underground escape route running 26kms to the airport had been planned, he said.