Rebels taste victory but Gaddafi forces still have some fight left


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The Independent Online

Emboldened rebels laid siege to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's compound in central Tripoli last night as Libya's fight to break free of 42 years of dictatorship looked on the brink of a success. It came after a six-month struggle that at times looked doomed to plunge the country into a prolonged civil war.

Opposition leaders cautioned that victory could only be assured when the belligerent dictator was in rebel hands, but the swift rebel advance into Tripoli and the capture of three of Gaddafi's sons was enough to spark euphoric celebrations early yesterday in Green Square, the symbolic heart of the Gaddafi regime.

However, the jubilation subsided somewhat as Gaddafi forces carried out a series of ambushes before launching an assault yesterday afternoon. Remnants of regime troops drove out rebel fighters during running battles.

The harbour as well as Green Square saw prolonged clashes, with both sides using heavy weaponry in a built-up area. As the fighting intensified, Nato's Apache helicopter gunships were in action on the day Tripoli was supposedly liberated by the rebels and after the opposition administration, the Transitional National Council (TNC), declared that the Alliance's military action was no longer necessary.

"There are obviously pockets of Gaddafi men who we had not been aware of," said Yusuf Bin Daroush, a rebel commander. "They are trying to disrupt our attempts to bring peace to the city. They are using mortars and machine-guns and causing civilian casualties." There were prolonged clashes at Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi's complex, amid speculation that he was still there. One rebel fighter, Mohammed Kamlish, said: "He may be directing operations from there. He is trying to cause as much damage as possible. He is a man who can only destroy."

Such fighting tempered claims that rebels now hold up to 90 per cent of Tripoli. Many neighbourhoods resembled ghost towns, the shops shuttered, the residents long gone, abandoning their homes in fear of a bloodbath. Rebel checkpoints sprung up across the city, but some areas were still very much under regime control, with journalists in the central Rixos hotel reporting trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns stationed outside.

And despite the lightning advance late on Sunday into Tripoli, supported by sleeper cells, Gaddafi appeared to have had enough warning to slip into hiding. His whereabouts remained a mystery, with the opposition leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, telling a news conference that the hunt had so far been unsuccessful.

Rebels put the death toll in the capital at around 370, while the government claimed that 1,300 people had been killed.