Libyan conflict:

Downfall: Gaddafi in hiding as rebels capture his Tripoli compound

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Regime loses its grip on the capital after day of heavy fighting

Tripoli

The massive green gates were blasted open after seven hours of ferocious fighting and exultant rebels poured into Bab al-Aziziya, Muammar Gaddafi's fortress and the symbol of the regime's bloody resistance in Tripoli. The fighters scoured through the complex shouting to each other that they had trapped the dictator in his lair.

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Frantic early searches failed to find the quarry and the revolutionaries were last night trying to locate a network of tunnels supposedly hidden inside the complex.

Meanwhile, they tore down the regime's green flag from the top of his home, which had been bombed in 1986 by US warplanes, and replaced it with the banner of the revolution.

For the revolutionaries, frustrated and angry that their entry into the capital had not resulted in the immediate vanquishing of their hated foe, the fall of the bastion gave cathartic relief. They hugged each other amid repeated cries of "Allahu Akbar". One of the fighters climbed on to the statue of a clenched fist, a symbol of defiance against the West, and raised his hand in a victory salute. Another statue, that of Colonel Gaddafi, was dragged out of a building by rope, the head torn off and tossed from hand to hand.

Last night, fires broke out in several parts of the Bab al-Aziziya complex. Some had been set off by exploding ordnance, but some others had been started by rebel fighters and spread out of control.

Walking off with three vases, Amr Kalim Hassani said: "Some of the Shabab were stupid, they started fires, they are destroying people's properties." But not all of the regime's forces had left the sprawling compound and groups emerged to carry out ambushes, leading to running battles. The violence continued to rise in tempo in the aftermath of the storming of the complex with volleys of mortar rounds and missiles arcing their way across the city.

Some of the most ferocious clashes were around Green Square, now renamed Martyr Square, the scene of a victory party the night the rebels had come into the capital. Regime troops, who had taken up vantage points in high buildings, began to pour out steady fire below, forcing rebel positions to fall back. The square again became the centre of celebrations last night, as rebel TV broadcasted footage of large crowds of supporters waving flags and letting off fireworks.

As the Shabab, the volunteers of the uprising, were driving along the roads flanked with burnt vehicles, blowing horns, they came under sniper fire, causing some of their "technicals" – gun-mounted flat-bed trucks – to crash. Soon the sounds of celebration were mingling with sirens from the city's medical service. Malik Abdullah Bagdis, pausing in between shooting his Kalashnikov into the air, cried out: "We have got into the cave of this animal. We shall find him, he cannot hide from us for long, where can he run now?"

Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, walking down one of the main roads of the compound with a rocket-propelled grenade in one hand and a Kalashnikov in another, said: "I feel an explosion of joy in my heart." The 19-year-old student-turned-revolutionary from Misrata, which had withstood a long and painful siege by the regime, added quietly: "I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gaddafi's house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."

Another fighter, Mohammed Bin Shomakh, said: "We have found documents which will prove his guilt, all the suffering he has caused. Gaddafi must face justice, him and his family."

Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, had earlier taunted the rebels by taking a group of foreign journalists to Bab al-Aziziya. It was reported that he and his brother Mohammed had been captured and would be tried in Libya. The Transitional National Council (TNC) later said that they had not confirmed his capture.

The assault on the fortress was launched six hours after his surprise appearance with a rolling barrage of six minutes and 40 seconds, the incoming fire spreading orange flames and dark grey swirls of smoke.

As fighting continued throughout the morning, a ship arrived in Tripoli from Benghazi to disgorge hundreds of fighters, large quantities of arms and convoys of "technicals". This was in contravention of the TNC's own declaration that forces from the east would not be sent into the capital, in an effort to avoid tribal and regional enmities.

Yesterday also saw a series of Nato air strikes focusing on Bab al-Aziziya, as well as naval fire. Returning rounds from the shore sent up sprays of water from the sea. The Western attacks came a day after the opposition's hierarchy, including its envoy to London, had asked for them to be halted, as the regime no longer posed a threat.

Attacks by Colonel Gaddafi's forces had increased over the past 24 hours. The precarious nature of the opposition's hold on the city was illustrated during a press briefing to the media at the headquarters of the "Tripoli Brigade" fighters from the city, who were meant to be in sole control until the escalating violence necessitated the arrival of rebel reinforcements.

Speaking at a girls school, unused since the start of the civil war, Emhemmed Ghula, who claimed he was the deputy commander for the capital, stressed that the city was "90 per cent under control, they have some snipers, they have some roofs, but they can't move in the streets, that belongs to us". At that point one of the snipers fired into the courtyard, sending the rebels huddling against walls. This was followed by an attack on the gate by gunmen on trucks firing Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. The revolutionaries at the entrance fell over each other in their haste to abandon their post. One of them shouted to the journalists, "call Nato please".

One thing Nato could not help with was Colonel Gaddafi's whereabouts. "I haven't a clue," Nato spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie responded to that question at the Alliance's base in Naples, from where the Libyan operation is being run. He added: "Our mission is not over until the regime's forces return to their barracks."

Late last night, Reuters reported that Colonel Gaddafi had told ul-Urubah television that withdrawal from his Tripoli compound was a tactical move. He was also reported as saying the Bab al-Aziziya base was levelled to the ground by 64 Nato air strikes, and vowed death or victory in the fight against "agression".

The foreign media taken to Bab al-Aziziya were shown about 100 men who had been assembled at the complex to collect guns. Raising his hand in a victory sign, Saif al-Islam shouted: "This is our country. We are here, we live here and we die here. We are going to win, because the people are with us. Look at them, look at them, in the streets, everywhere." In reality, the streets had been empty of civilians apart from a very few cars and people scurrying across in between the gunfire. In a febrile climate of intimidation and fear, it is also difficult to judge how much loyalty the regime commands in the capital. But men in two large, mainly poor, areas – Buslin and Tariq Matar – have received guns and explosives in the past few days.

Ahmed Mouad Faroush, a carpenter from Buslin, said it was common knowledge that his area was being fortified for a fight. "There are people there who still support him, for sure. I am not one of them, and I shall move out of my street tomorrow until it is all over. But I will tell you something, even today Nato was bombing us. People do not like their country being bombed by foreigners. This has been going on for months, my country has been destroyed. Do you think people will forget that?"

Escape underground?

Despite the rebel takeover of his compound, Muammar Gaddafi remained at large last night amid speculation that he has disappeared down a warren of secret tunnels. The compound is believed to be riddled with a network of underground bunkers and tunnels, big enough to hold vehicles.

"There was a network of labyrinthine passageways, fully functioning generators and up-to-standard living quarters, possibly for several hundreds of men," an Irish engineer who worked in Tripoli told Channel 4 News. An underground escape route running 26kms to the airport had been planned, he said. Similar subterranean networks have been found in Benghazi and other cities after rebels wrested control.

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