, TRIPOLI, Aug 24 – Tripoli celebrated into the early hours of Wednesday after rebels overran Muammar Gaddafi’s compound, despite finding no sign of the Libyan strongman or his sons.
Several hours later pro-Gaddafi media quoted him as saying he had abandoned the compound in a “tactical withdrawal” after it was wrecked by NATO bombing attacks.
The speech gave no indication of where he had gone.
The attack on the Bab al-Azizya compound followed three days of fighting in the capital which the head of the rebel National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said had left more than 400 killed and 2,000 wounded.
Without specifying if he was talking of both sides, Jalil told France-24 television that some 600 pro-Gaddafi fighters had been captured but the battle would not be over until the Libyan leader himself was a prisoner.
Celebratory gunfire rocked the city when news spread that the insurgents had breached the walls of compound in the centre of the capital and had sent Gaddafi’s forces fleeing.
But Gaddafi loyalists still held out in parts of the city, and were in control of the Rixos Hotel, headquarters of some 30 foreign journalists accredited to the regime, preventing any of them from leaving.
Jalil also said three areas of the capital were still resisting, including Abu Slim, from where half-a-dozen mortar bombs fell on Bab al-Azizya late Tuesday.
Rebels said Gaddafi loyalists in his birthplace of Sirte, the last major regime bastion remaining, had fired a missile at rebel-held Misrata, hours after negotiations began to try to secure a surrender of the city.
In the rebels’ eastern base of Benghazi, where residents too poured onto the streets in celebration, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said there had been no trace of Gaddafi or his family in his compound.
“Bab al-Azizya is fully under our control now. Colonel Gaddafi and his sons were not there; there is nobody,” Bani said. “No one knows where they are.”
An AFP correspondent saw rebels breach the surrounding cement walls of the vast complex and pour inside, where the bodies of a number of apparent Gaddafi fighters were lying, as were wounded people.
As rebel leaders proclaimed they had “won the battle,” fighters in the compound fired automatic weapons into the air, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and raiding the armoury for ammunition, pistols and rifles.
Rebels were seen ripping the head off a Gaddafi statue, stepping on it and kicking it.
One young man, a green bandana around his head, picked it up and held it above his head like a trophy, flashing a huge smile.
Another climbed on a huge sculpture of a fist gripping an aeroplane — a symbol of a US attack on the compound in 1986 — trying to break off a piece.
© AFP The attack on the Bab al-Azizya compound followed three days of fighting in the capital
© AFP Mahmud Turkia
The fighting for Gaddafi’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 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.
On the eastern front, Libyan rebels Tuesday overran the eastern oil hub of Ras Lanuf on the road to Sirte, spokesman Bani said.
Bani said he hoped insurgents would soon reach Bin Jawad, a hamlet just east of Sirte and almost halfway between Benghazi and Misrata.
The assault on Bab al-Azizya came only hours after Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, appeared at the compound 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,” he said, 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 Gaddafi and his entire family were still in Tripoli, denying rumours he had fled but without specifying the exact location.
Gaddafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim claimed to the Syrian-based Arrai channel that more than 6,500 “volunteers” had arrived in Tripoli to fight for the regime and called for more.
© AFP On the eastern front, Libyan rebels Tuesday overran the eastern oil hub of Ras Lanuf
© AFP Gianluigi Guercia
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had agreed with his US counterpart Barack Obama to continue military action against Gaddafi under the March UN mandate until he lays down his weapons.
In Doha, NTC number two Mahmud Jibril said Libya’s transition “begins immediately” and that Qatar would host a meeting on Wednesday to organise $2.4 billion in aid for the country.
Jibril told a press conference, “we will build a new Libya, with all Libyans as brothers for a united, civil and democratic nation.
“This is the new Libya where every Libyan works as a beloved brother, hand in hand, to serve the interests of the nation to ensure equality and justice for everyone.
“We have to be transparent in front of the whole world. Now we have to concentrate on building and healing our wounds.”
He told the youth of Libya “who brought us our dignity back,” that “this is your revolution and you will have to continue the march to finish the revolution … to participate in the creation and establishment of the Libyan state in order to move Libya forward.”
The Arab League for its part invited the NTC to take up Libya’s empty seat at a special ministerial meeting to be held Saturday in Cairo, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said.
Meanwhile radical Latin American countries still held a torch for Gaddafi, with Nicaragua saying it would offer him political asylum if he asked for it.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would continue to recognise only Gaddafi as the legitimate leader of Libya, while Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino slammed “a clear invasion” by western powers aimed at grabbing Libyan oil.