Libyan Rebels Take Most of Tripoli: Where's Muammar?

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Bob Strong / Reuters

Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive through Tripoli's Qarqarsh district on Aug. 22, 2011

Updated: Aug. 22, 2011, at 7:45 a.m. E.T.

After an extraordinary night in which Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year iron grip on power seemed to crumble, there was fierce fighting in parts of Tripoli between the Libyan leader's die-hard supporters and the thousands of rebel fighters who had poured into the city just 12 hours before.

With crowds pouring into the streets to celebrate the end of Gaddafi's autocratic rule, the man himself was nowhere to be found — ostensibly hiding out as he contemplated his options aside from arrest and an international trial.

So dizzyingly fast have events moved that few people — whether they be Libya's apparent new leaders or Western officials — have had time to contemplate what comes next. The fears in both Libya and Western capitals is that Libya could replay the chaos that ensued in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003, with a vicious insurgency born from the old regime. Reporters in Tripoli on Monday reported hearing heavy gunfire in the city's center, and rebel officials said they believed that about 20% of the city of 2 million remained in the control of Gaddafi loyalists; those appeared to include snipers who were perched atop buildings.

On Monday morning, British Prime Minister David Cameron raced back from his vacation in Cornwall and summoned his national security team to discuss the astonishing events in Tripoli. He said frozen Libyan assets would soon be released to help the country's rebels establish order and claimed that Gaddafi's regime was "falling apart and in full retreat."

The Libyan rebels' chargé d'affaires in London, Mahmud Nacue, told reporters on Monday morning that the fighters were scouring Tripoli to find Gaddafi. "The fighters will turn over every stone to find him and arrest him and to put him in court," he said, stressing that they opposed vengeance killings by rebels of Gaddafi or his officials. "They arrested two of his sons, Saif al-Islam and Mohammad, and they are treating them in a good manner," Nacue said. "We think we will do our best to handle everything in a peaceful way." Nacue also said that opposition forces controlled 95% of the city.

Though Gaddafi remained in hiding on Monday morning (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman acknowledged on ABC's Good Morning America that U.S. officials didn't know his whereabouts), his regime was finally over after late Sunday night, when thousands of people poured into the streets of the capital, firing guns into the air and cheering a column of rebel pickup trucks that had converged on the city, apparently meeting no resistance from regime forces. "We are coming for you, frizz-head!" the Associated Press reported some rebel fighters as screaming, mocking Gaddafi to the delight of residents.

Overnight, Gaddafi made a last-ditch plea for his supporters to defend Tripoli, telling them to "pick up your weapons — there should be no fear." Speaking from an unknown hiding place, the audio address lasted just about one minute, suggesting that the leader might be in an insecure location. Shortly after 1 a.m. local time, Gaddafi was back on television for the fourth time in 24 hours, pleading for rural tribal leaders to march on Tripoli to fight the rebels. Sounding enraged, he ranted against the rebel fighters and NATO alike. "If Tripoli was to burn like Baghdad, why would you allow this to happen?" he said. He claimed that there were other assets at his command. "The women who are trained in weapons might also fight."

But he may no longer be able to call upon his sons. The opposition representative in London, Gumal Gamaty, claimed late Sunday night that rebel fighters had arrested Gaddafi's best-known offspring, Saif al-Islam. Later reports had two other Gaddafi sons, Saadi and Mohammad, had been taken into custody. "Saif has been captured and held in a safe place," he said on Sky News. Gamaty dismissed warnings of revenge killings, saying, "Libyan people are all united to get rid of tyranny, this dark era of 42 years ... We are just looking forward to getting a fresh start."

The apparent last gasp of Gaddafi's power appeared to happen with breathless speed, as his loyalists seemingly melted away into the dark. That defied earlier predictions that the rebels — if they made it into the capital — would likely need to fight block by block against die-hard Gaddafi supporters with nothing left to lose.

That has not happened. Around 11:30 p.m., as ecstatic crowds of residents filled the roads leading to central Tripoli, a rebel fighter with his head wrapped in a kaffiyeh said the opposition forces were cautiously optimistic that the violence they had expected to confront in Tripoli might not materialize. "We were expecting resistance," he told a Sky News correspondent live on television, as they sat stuck in a traffic jam of celebrating residents. A few minutes later, news broke that the brigade that had protected Gaddafi throughout months of heavy combat had laid down its weapons and surrendered. "All of us are happy because Gaddafi is leaving soon," the rebel fighter said.

The rebel campaign had hugely accelerated since Friday, when opposition fighters seized the key oil-refinery city of Zawiyah just 46 km (28 miles) from central Tripoli, leaving Gaddafi and his supporters with no reliable source of refined fuel — essential to continuing the war. Even so, analysts with considerable Tripoli experience had predicted only hours earlier that Gaddafi's most fervent supporters would likely put up a bitter fight in defense of their last stronghold, particularly since the leader's only apparent alternative would be a grim war-crimes trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. "If there's determined resistance, it could be very difficult," Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tripoli, said on Sunday afternoon.

But suffering from both exhaustion and political isolation, Gaddafi's supporters have apparently dwindled over the past few days, perhaps having finally realized that they were out of options. Last March, NATO members voted to launch a bombing campaign on Gaddafi's forces, ostensibly to protect rebels who were then virtually under siege in their eastern headquarters of Benghazi. At the time, NATO commanders envisioned a short campaign in which Gaddafi's forces would crumble quickly. Instead, Gaddafi held out for far longer than was predicted by using billions of dollars and the considerable oil resources at hand, harnessing his supporters and a few key tribal leaders and employing mercenaries, while also being helped by the rebels' inexperience and disorganization.

Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, looking weary and somber, went on television near midnight to warn that there could be a massacre of civilians in Tripoli. "We are here to sincerely as always plea for an immediate cease-fire," Ibrahim said. Earlier Sunday, British Foreign Office officials said that NATO attacks had been critical during the past few days in clearing the rebels' way into Tripoli. By midnight Sunday, the effects of those attacks were clear, as wild carnival-style scenes erupted in Tripoli.

Nonetheless, there are potential perils — especially as there appeared little chance left of peace talks between rebel leaders and Gaddafi. NATO spokeswoman Qana Lungescu said on CNN at midnight local time on Sunday that while the coalition forces had paved the way toward Gaddafi's downfall, others needed to negotiate a transition to democracy. "It is for the United Nations and the contact group to negotiate a political solution to this conflict," she said.

Inside Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists have been stationed during the six-month conflict, spokesman Ibrahim said regime forces were fighting rebels in Tripoli and "defeating them in many neighborhoods." He blamed the breakdown in peace talks on NATO and Western leaders, who had placed conditions on negotiations, he said. "You cannot condition peace," Ibrahim told reporters, while crowds poured into the streets. "You need to sit down and talk, and then discuss everything." He said about 1,300 people had been killed in Tripoli and that "the hospitals cannot cope." Ibrahim's call for cease-fire talks appeared to come at the last moment — perhaps too late.

With foreign reporters still in lockdown mode within Tripoli, and those journalists traveling with the rebels not yet inside the city, the channel to watch as the extraordinary endgame played out was Sky News, Rupert Murdoch's British-based 24-hour network. Perched atop a pickup truck in the column of vehicles headed into central Tripoli, correspondent Alex Crawford was live on television for more than two hours, dressed in a bulletproof helmet and vest, using a remote device that allows live television coverage from anywhere with a satellite signal. Crawford, who had been trapped for days in Zawiyah during a battle between rebels and Gaddafi forces last March, said she was astonished by the scenes around her. "People are hugging these rebels, thanking them. For heaven's sake, they are even thanking us, and we are just riding along with them," she said on air as the throngs crowded around the vehicles.