Libya Rebels Renew Fight To Pry Tripoli From Regime

Aug 23, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:31 am

Libyan rebels seized control of Moammar Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound Tuesday after NATO airstrikes blasted a hole in an outer wall.

Hundreds of fighters poured inside the fortress-like complex and raised the opposition flag over Gadhafi's personal residence. The Libyan leader and his family were nowhere to be found, however.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from inside the compound, said the rebels were firing weapons into the air and that civilians were streaming in by the thousands to join in the celebration.

"A lot of the weapons that they're using have been looted from this compound. There's a very large weapons silo here, with newly minted weapons and the people are now taking them away," she said.

"Bab al-Aziziya was the seat of Gadhafi's power and one of the most important locations in the country," she said. "People are just going crazy. They are so excited about being able to come in here."

Hours after the battle erupted, a pro-Gadhafi TV channel quoted him as saying he retreated from his Tripoli compound in a "tactical move" after 64 NATO airstrikes turned it to rubble. Al-Rai TV said Wednesday it would air the comments in full and reported an excerpt in which the leader of Libya's unraveling regime vowed his forces would resist "the aggression with all strength" until either victory or death.

In a two-hour interview with Al-Rai, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Gadhafi's forces still controlled 80 percent of the capital, which he called a "ticking time bomb" for the rebels.

Rebels ran through the compound's gardens on Tuesday, shouting and raising their rifles in triumph. One of the fighters climbed a statue of a golden fist crushing an American warplane. The statue was erected by Gadhafi as a symbol of defiance after a 1986 U.S. airstrike against the compound.

Tripoli's new rebel military chief, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, said at nightfall that a small area of the vast compound was still under the control of regime fighters and heavy shooting was heard across Tripoli toward midnight.

Garcia-Navarro said Tuesday the view among the people streaming into the compound is that the fighting is at an end, Gadhafi is gone and outright victory is only a matter of time.

"But practically speaking, he is still at large. His sons are still at large ... and there are still several parts of the country under his control," she said.

The rebels themselves seemed to be more circumspect about the fight for control of Tripoli. Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman said the "danger is still there" as long as Gadhafi remains on the run.

NATO has vowed to keep up its air campaign until all pro-Gadhafi forces surrender or return to their barracks. The alliance's warplanes have hit at least 40 targets in and around Tripoli in the past two days — the highest number on a single geographic location since the bombing started in March, NATO said.

"We remain vigilant and we will strike targets if they threaten the civilian population," NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said in Brussels. "There are still weapons out there and there are still targets."

Should the opposition seize control and pending U.N. approval, the European Union was preparing to unfreeze billions of dollars in Libyan assets, the bloc's foreign policy chief said Tuesday.

"This is a rich country. The question is how to get the economy moving again quickly," Catherine Ashton said in Brussels.

Ali Aujali, the TNC's envoy to Washington, told NPR's Robert Siegel that NATO had a substantial role to play in post-Gadhafi Libya.

"We need to build our country," he said. "We need democratic institutions. We need to train our people.

"We need to secure our borders and we need, of course, technology. ... It will be a major, major development in Libya."

The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that a rescue mission to pluck 300 foreign nationals from the Libyan capital had 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."

The storming of the compound Tuesday marked a new high for the rebels in what has been an emotional roller coaster since they moved into Tripoli on Sunday. They faced only light resistance as they poured into the capital over the weekend. For some six months, capturing Tripoli had been seen as the end game in a war against Gadhafi. At first, it seemed as if the regime was teetering on the brink of collapse. But there was shocking setback early Tuesday when Gadhafi's son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam made a surprise appearance at the Rixos hotel, a day after the rebels and the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court had announced he was in custody.

Dressed in a T-shirt and camouflage trousers, he drove up in a white limousine escorted by armored SUVs at the hotel, where about 30 foreign journalists are staying. He took reporters on a tour through parts of Tripoli still under the regime's control.

When asked about the ICC report that he had been arrested, he told reporters early Tuesday: "The ICC can go to hell," and added, "We are going to break the backbone of the rebels."

A spokesman for the rebel leadership, Sadeq al-Kabir, seemed stunned by news that Seif al-Islam was free and initially said it was a lie. He said he could not confirm whether Gadhafi's son had escaped from rebel custody, but he did admit that another son, Mohammed, had escaped house arrest Monday.

"The real moment of victory is when Gadhafi is captured," said Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi. He acknowledged that the rebels had no idea where the 69-year-old Gadhafi is or whether he was even in Tripoli.

With reporting from Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Benghazi. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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