Libya rebels overrun Kadhafi HQ, hoist flag, smash statue
Rebels overran Moamer Kadhafi's compound in Tripoli Tuesday, raising their flag and ripping the head off his statue as they celebrated a symbolic, if not yet real, end to the strongman's iron-fisted 42-year rule.
The streets of Tripoli erupted into celebratory gunfire when news spread that the insurgents had breached the walls of Bab al-Azizya compound in the centre of the capital and had sent Kadhafi's forces fleeing.
As rebel leaders proclaimed they had "won the battle," fighters inside the compound celebrated by firing automatic weapons into the air, chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), and raiding the armoury for ammunition, pistols and rifles.
In the rebels' eastern bastion of Benghazi, where residents too poured onto the streets in celebration, commander Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said there had been no trace of Kadhafi or his family.
"Bab al-Azizya is fully under our control now. Colonel Kadhafi and his sons were not there; there is nobody," Bani said. "No one knows where they are."
"We have won the battle," Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the insurgents' Tripoli commander told Al-Jazeera television from inside the complex at the end of the massive assault that began in the morning.
"The military battle is over now," he said.
An AFP correspondent said rebels first breached the surrounding cement walls before entering inside.
"They have taken Bab al-Azizya. Completely. It is finished. It is an incredible sight," he said, adding that the bodies of a number of apparent Kadhafi fighters were lying inside, as were wounded people.
Footage from satellite channels showed rebel fighters ripping the head off a statue of the dictator, stepping on it and kicking it.
One young man, a green bandana around his head, then picked it up and held it above his head like a trophy, flashing a huge smile.
As other rebels tore up a poster portrait of Kadhafi, one climbed atop a huge sculpture of a fist gripping an airplane -- a symbol of a US attack on the compound in 1986 -- trying to break off a piece.
Another rebel proudly brandished a seized rifle with a gold-plated barrel and stock saying "Kadhafi people killed us with it."
A rebel official in the western city of Misrata said that "at the same house used by Kadhafi before to describe the Libyan people as rats, today the independence flag is flying on its roof."
He was referring to a speech by Kadhafi soon after the rebellion was launched in mid-February in which he referred to those rising up against him as "rats."
The fighting for Kadhafi's headquarters was the most intense in the city since rebel fighters in their hundreds came surging into the capital three days ago.
The sky in the afternoon was filled with the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the overhead roar of NATO jets, though it was unclear if they carried out air strikes.
Even two kilometres (about a mile) from the fighting, the almost constant whistle of falling bullets could be hear from the rooftops, as the city's mosques chanted "Allahu Akbar."
On the eastern front, Libyan rebels Tuesday overran the eastern oil hub of Ras Lanuf on the road to Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte, their military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said.
"We are now in Ras Lanuf," Bani told AFP, adding he hoped insurgents would soon reach Bin Jawad, a hamlet just east of Sirte and almost halfway between the rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misrata.
Bab al-Azizya had been the site chosen in the early hours of Tuesday by Kadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, to make an appearance before journalists to refute reports that he had been arrested by the rebels.
"Tripoli is under our control. Everyone should rest assured. All is well in Tripoli," Seif said at the compound, smiling broadly and flashing the V-for-victory sign.
"I am here to refute the lies," the 39-year-old said about reports of his arrest, and accused the West of waging a "technological and media war to cause chaos and terror in Libya."
Seif, like his father, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. He said Kadhafi and his entire family were still in Tripoli, denying rumours he had fled but without specifying the exact location.
His comments were backed up by the Russian head of world chess who said on Tuesday Kadhafi had told him in a telephone call that he was in Tripoli and would remain there.
"I am alive and healthy. I am in Tripoli and do not intend to leave Libya. Do not believe the lying reports by Western television companies," Kirsan Ilyumzhinov quoted Kadhafi as saying in the conversation, the Interfax news agency reported. Ilyumzhinov had met Kadhafi in Tripoli in June.
All that is known is that he has disappeared.
"Colonel Kadhafi and his sons were not there; there is nobody," Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said of the captured compound from the rebel bastion of Benghazi.
"No one knows where they are," he added.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had agreed with his US counterpart Barack Obama to continue military action against Kadhafi until he lays down his weapons.
Sarkozy's Elysee Palace said in a statement that the two leaders had spoken by telephone and "agreed to pursue their military effort in support of the legitimate Libyan authorities for as long as Kadhafi and his clan have not put down their arms."
They were referring to the NATO-led bombing campaign launched in March under a UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Kadhafi's regime was in its "death throes," while his Italian counterpart Franco Frattini predicted the strongman and his sons would soon be captured.
The International Crisis Group think-tank warned that Libya "faces a pivotal moment of historic proportions."
"Steps taken in the next few days and weeks will decisively shape the post-Kadhafi order," it said.
© 2011 AFP