Gaddafi's capital rocked by gunfire, blasts and rumour

Insurgents claim dictator has fled as rebel fighters and Nato launch coordinated offensive on Tripoli

The Libyan capital Tripoli was awash last night with gunfire, explosions, and persistent but totally unsubstantiated rumours that Colonel Gaddafi had fled with two of his sons across the border into Tunisia.

The origin of the claim was a report on the opposition television station. It led to prolonged, and possibly premature, celebratory gunfire across "Free Libya", and equally predictable scoffing and reassurances that all was normal from the regime spokesman.

Whatever the truth of Col Gaddafi's whereabouts and grip on the country he has ruled for 42 years, there certainly was growing evidence of something extraordinary happening inside Tripoli. Heavy gunfire and explosions rattled the Libyan capital late last night. Rebel commanders said the firing in the capital signaled the start of an attack on Muammar Gaddafi's main stronghold. These, as with the other claims by rebels, could not early this morning be independently verified.

Gun battles and rounds of mortar shelling were heard clearly at the hotel where foreign correspondents stay in the capital. Explosions were heard also in the area as Nato aircraft carried out heavy bombing runs after nightfall.

Col Fadlallah Haroun, a rebel military commander in the stronghold of Benghazi, said this marks the beginning of Operation Mermaid – a nickname for the capital city – an assault on Tripoli co-ordinated with Nato. Col Haroun said that weapons were assembled and sent by tugboats to Tripoli on Friday night. "The fighters in Tripoli are rising up in two places – some are in the Tajoura neighborhood and the other is near the Matiga [international] airport," he told the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera.

Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the NTC, said: "The rebels in Tripoli have risen up. This was a pre-set plan. They've been preparing for a while. There's coordination with the rebels approaching from the east, west and south. The next hours are crucial. Many of their [pro-Gaddafi] brigades and their commanders have fled."

Residents inside Tripoli reported scenes of defiance and violence, with demonstrations taking place in the streets while gun battles erupted at government ministries. Some of the most prolonged clashes took place at the buildings of the Interior and Security ministries. Mohammed Daoud Rahimi, a revolutionary commander who had taken part in the capture of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of the capital, said last night: "Our main aim is to get to a position where we can help our brothers in Tripoli. There are Gaddafi troops on the main roads. But we can engage them while at the same time use other routes to go around them."

And, early today, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry recognized the National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The move represents a major shift in policy for Libya's neighbor to the west, which has remained neutral until now.

The strife in the streets of Tripoli started after celebratory gunfire at Ifthar, the end of the day's fasting in the month of Ramadan. Ahmed Ali Fayem said he had just spoken to his brother Qais in the Libyan capital. "He told me that the Shabaab [rebels] have taken over from Alashka Street and many others in the centre. But the Gaddafi soldiers have got organised and they are carrying out heavy firing. I don't know what will happen next. I am happy but also worried."

A caller from Tripoli also told Libya's opposition Al-Ahrar TV channel that anti-Gaddafi locals had closed off the city's main Alsika Street, close to the French embassy and leading from Tripoli university to the former King's palace. Al-Ahrar said that, according to sources in Tripoli, Gaddafi and his sons Mu'tasm and Hannibal had all fled. But the roads out of the capital have been cut by rebel forces and it would have been impossible for them to take the route out to Tunisia without opposition approval.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim appeared on Libyan television to deny that there was an uprising in Tripoli. "Sure, there were some armed militants who escaped into some neighborhoods and there were some scuffles, but we dealt with it within a half hour and it is now calm," he said.

The rebels have often prospered for a few days, only to beat rapid, haphazard retreats, but there has, in the past week, been a significant, apparently solid advance. Rebels have cut off Tripoli by capturing Zawiyah, Sabratha and routes to Sabha in the south. However, a rebel advance from Zawiyah was stopped at the next town, Jedaim, with regime forces launching a counter-attack. In the east, where rebels had proved to be far less resilient than in the west of the country, opposition forces pulled out of the oil port of Brega within six hours of announcing its capture.

The battle for Zawiyah had gone on for most of Friday night. Every day has led to the fall of another town, with Tripoli's lifeline to the outside world cut, and its troops, hammered for six months by Nato air strikes, in retreat. Since Nato took command of air strikes, on 31 March, they have flown more than 19,000 sorties, including in excess of 7,223 strike sorties.

The final days: Libyan leader's options are fast running out

Mile by mile, he is being encircled. Road by road, his supply routes are being cut. And one by one, some of his closest aides are defecting. The imminent demise – feet-first, or on a plane or other vehicle of exile – of the man who has ruled Libya for 42 years has been asserted many times in the past five months, not least in one of Foreign Secretary William Hague's less distinguished moments. But this time, unless some sandstorm of a sudden reversal takes place, it really does look like the final days of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi are approaching.

The regime forces, after being pulverised for months by Nato, do not appear to have the capabilities to break through the rebels and re-establish a lifeline to the outside world. The rebels are still pretty inept, but they are receiving training and considerable assistance from Western former forces contractors, who are now planning and accompanying their missions.

The capture of the refinery in Zawiyah means the gasoline supply to Tripoli is now cut. There is at least a month's worth of reserves, although some of it has been destroyed in Nato attacks. Talks were held last Sunday and Monday in Tunis and Djerba with both rebels and the regime saying they want to avoid the bloodbath which will come if the opposition tries to storm Tripoli.

The sticking point is what happens to Col Gaddafi. So where is he? Almost certainly not where anyone outside his inner circle expects him to be, otherwise he would already have been killed by intensified Nato strikes. He has not been seen in public since 30 May, or on television since 12 June. The only surfacing has been a low-quality audio message broadcast last Monday. It contained no clue as to when it was recorded.

But, wherever he is, his options are fast diminishing. NBC, citing US administration sources, says Col Gaddafi and his family may go to Tunisia. But this will still keep them within the reach of International Criminal Court warrants. Other possible receptacles for him include Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea. He might choose to go down fighting, but an 11th-hour deal is more likely, with the threat of a bloodbath in Tripoli as the bargaining chip.

David Randall and Kim Sengupta