Into Gaddafi's Bunker: The Rebels Overrun the Regime's Nerve Center

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Rebel fighters gesture as they stamp on the head of a statue of Moammar Gaddafi inside the main compound in Bab Al-Aziziya in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011.

Updated: 1:30 p.m. E.T.

After hours of pounding battle on Tuesday, Libya's rebels smashed through the fortified perimeter of Muammar Gaddafi's compound in western Tripoli — the nerve center of the old regime — in the late afternoon, sending huge plumes of black smoke over the city, and perhaps dealing a fatal blow to Gaddafi's ability to cling to power. Footage apparently shot by rebels and aired on al-Jazeera showed armed rebels deep inside the Bab al-Aziziyah complex, rejoicing as they clambered upon the ruins of Gaddafi's old house, which was bombed by U.S. jets in 1986 and had been left by Gaddafi as a memorial to the West's evils.

This time, it was his rebel foes — and likely the last foes of his 42-year iron rule — who owned the territory. Explosions and what sounded like bursts of sniper fire resounded across the city from the complex throughout Tuesday, as rebels fought pitched battles, attempting to rout the last remaining fighters inside; the complex has been thought to be the sanctuary of Gaddafi's most hard-core fighters, some officials and close advisers and perhaps even the fugitive leader himself since the rebels stormed the capital on Sunday night. "We are liberating Libya from north to south," said Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC).

Yet even as Pentagon officials announced in Washington that the rebels appeared to control much of Libya's capital, the rebels' apparent military breakthrough was tempered by a setback earlier in the day, when Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — who had supposedly been in rebel custody — appeared as a free man, relaxed and smiling. His appearance in the early hours of Tuesday morning shattered the sense that the rebels' victory in Libya was at hand. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son was seen talking to the press while surrounded by supporters, raising concerns that the opposition might be struggling to knit together a cohesive government-in-waiting as it battles to finally crush Gaddafi's regime — as well as to hunt down the fugitive leader himself.

On Monday, leaders of the NTC repeatedly hailed their fighters for having arrested Saif the night before, after they had stormed into Tripoli, apparently meeting only light resistance from Gaddafi's remaining forces. NTC officials even boasted that they were treating Saif well "in a safe location." The rebels' apparent inability to keep Saif, one of the most crucial regime figures, under arrest — if they ever had him at all — cast doubts on the claims that came later in the day that the opposition was on the verge of victory. Quizzed about the claims that the rebels had routed all government forces from Bab al-Aziziyah, Shammam dismissed Saif's appearance on Tuesday as "Hollywood."

On Tuesday, Saif hardly looked like a prisoner, or for that matter even a hunted man. Just as he did on many nights during the six-month conflict, he drove his SUV to the doorstep of Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, a wooded resort where foreign journalists have been required to stay under tight government control. The 38-year-old Saif — a notorious night owl — hopped out, flashing V-for-victory signs, and offered to drive reporters around Gaddafi-held neighborhoods, saying, "We're going to hit the hottest spots in Tripoli." "I'm here to refute all the rumors and reports," he said, dressed in an army green T-shirt and sporting a wartime beard. "You have seen how the Libyan people rose up yesterday," he said, without specifying whether he had been in rebel custody.

Among the disputed neighborhoods is Bab al-Aziziyah. The complex is heavily fortified and ringed by several cordons. By 6 p.m. local time, there was no word yet as to how far into the complex rebel fighters had advanced. Despite that, Libyans surrounded the complex, cheering their support for the rebel fighters as gunfire raged inside. Unconfirmed rumors swirled around Tripoli on Tuesday that either Saif had bribed his way out of custody or a faction had released him. When a reporter asked Saif if he were a fugitive from international justice, he guffawed, saying, "Damn the commission," apparently referring to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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