By Kim Sengupta and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
– 23 August 2011
Rebels laid siege to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's compound in central Tripoli last night as Libya's fight to break free from four decades of dictatorship looked to be on the brink of success after a six-month struggle that at times looked doomed to plunge the country into a prolonged civil war.
Opposition leaders warned that victory could only be assured when the belligerent dictator was in rebel hands, but their swift advance into Tripoli and the capture of three of Gaddafi's sons was enough to spark euphoric celebrations early yesterday in Green Square, the symbolic heart of the Gaddafi regime.
But the jubilation subsided as Gaddafi forces carried out a series of ambushes before launching an assault yesterday afternoon. Regime troops drove out the rebel fighters during running battles in the capital.
The harbour, as well as Green Square, saw prolonged clashes, with both sides using heavy weaponry in the built-up areas. The electricity sub-station for the area was damaged after being targeted by regime mortar fire.
As the fighting intensified last night, Nato's Apache helicopter gunships were forced into action once more, despite Tripoli being supposedly liberated by the rebels and after the opposition administration, the Transitional National Council (TNC), declaring that the Alliance's military action was no longer necessary.
"There are obviously pockets of Gaddafi men whom we had not been aware of," said Yusuf Bin Daroush, a rebel commander.
"They are trying to disrupt our attempts to bring peace to the city. They are using mortars and machine-guns and causing civilian casualties."
There were prolonged clashes at Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi's complex, amid speculation he was still there. One rebel, Mohammed Kamlish, said: "He may be directing operations from there. He is trying to cause as much damage as possible before the end."
Such fighting tempered claims that rebels now hold up to 90% of Tripoli. Many neighbourhoods resembled ghost towns, the shops shuttered, the residents long gone, abandoning their homes in fear of a bloodbath.
Rebel checkpoints sprang up across the city, but certain areas were still very much under regime control, with journalists in the central Rixos Hotel reporting that trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns were stationed outside.
Despite the lightning advance into Tripoli supported by rebel sleeper cells, Gaddafi appeared to have had enough warning to slip into hiding. His whereabouts remained a mystery last night, with the opposition leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, telling a news conference that the hunt had so far been unsuccessful.
"We have no knowledge of Gaddafi, or whether he is still in or outside Libya," he said.
Gaddafi's fighters appeared capable of repelling the rebels from the fortified compound, with tanks opening fire on opposition fighters.
Battles continued outside the command centre all day, with residents reporting explosions and gunfire. Rebels put the death toll in the capital at around 370, while the government claimed that 1,300 people had been killed.
As the fighting raged, world leaders joined the rebel chorus calling on Gaddafi to go, with US President Barack Obama saying the dictator and his regime "need to recognise that their rule has come to an end".
But calls were met by a silence from the absent Colonel - and defiance from his few cronies. "We will fight.
"We have whole cities on our side. They are coming to protect Tripoli," said government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim.
There were reports, however, that even elements within the inner circle were defecting, with Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi now reported to be in Tunisia.
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