As his capital was wrestled from him after days of ferocious fighting, Muammar Gaddafi issued a defiant message from his hiding place yesterday urging his supporters to "purify" Tripoli as 1,000 rebel fighters bombarded the regime's remaining enclave in the city.
An angry Colonel Gaddafi denounced the "rats, crusaders and unbelievers" in an audio message broadcast by loyalist satellite television channels during another day of brutal combat in Tripoli. There was no sign of an end to the conflict as the battle raged for four hours in the battered neighbourhood of Abu Salim, amid rumours that some of Colonel Gaddafi's family or even the dictator himself could be ready to launch a final stand from a loyalist enclave in a block of flats.
And the discovery of a grim pile of corpses of executed men in the Bab al-Aziziya compound that had once been Colonel Gaddafi's citadel offered grim evidence of retribution being exacted in the bloody civil war. A dozen bodies were seen by The Independent lying inside the complex with their hands tied behind their backs.
"Mercenaries, mercenaries," shouted a group of shabab (youths), as armed volunteers pointed at the dead men. The opposition had accused Colonel Gaddafi of hiring gunmen from sub-Saharan Africa during the conflict and many of those captured had been killed.
While the revolutionaries were sending reinforcements to Abu Salim, fresh skirmishes broke out in the centre of Tripoli and the Corinthia Hotel, used by foreign journalists, came under fire. The Independent's room was hit by large-calibre bullets that pierced the outside wall.
Outside Tripoli, Libya's eastern rebels advanced on Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's hometown, hoping to drive loyalists from the most significant city remaining in their control. After overnight raids by Nato warplanes that destroyed a group of Scud-missile support vehicles outside Sirte, the rebels were said by officials in Benghazi to be negotiating with tribal leaders to enter the city peacefully.
"The issue of Sirte is complicated," the rebel Transitional National Council's (TNC) defence spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Bani, told Bloomberg by telephone yesterday. "The power has been cut off so that the residents don't know what's going on around them or that Gaddafi is on the run."
But a darker picture of the situation in Sirte was painted by local radio broadcasts picked up by the BBC claiming the Gaddafi forces were executing rebel prisoners and burying them in a mass grave. That was apparently widely believed by rebel forces on their way towards Sirte and seemed likely to make any negotiated entry to the city, which many believe could be where Colonel Gaddafi is hiding, difficult to engineer. Those forces remained some distance from Sirte, still stalled last night at Bin Jawad, the main town on the route and the juncture where a previous offensive by the opposition had ended. A regime ambush killed 20 revolutionaries between the town and the oil port of Ras Lanuf, which was overrun earlier this week.
Rebels also have seized several parts of Sebha, another regime stronghold still holding out, including the main commercial Gamal Abdel-Nasser street, according to the rebel official Adel al-Zintani. He said mercenaries who had been paid by Colonel Gaddafi have fled the city, but loyal soldiers were continuing to hold firm and the opposition was facing problems in keeping the front line supplied. Wherever Colonel Gaddafi is, his message to the country was as defiant as ever.
His second taped address in 36 hours was broadcast yesterday by the al-Rai television station, warning residents of the capital that they faced persecution by the revolutionaries, including rape, and calling for a holy war. "Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, fight them and kill them," he said. "It is the time for martyrdom or victory." He went on to call tribes outside the capital "to continue their march to Tripoli, the imams and youths in the mosques should rise up for jihad. They [the rebels] will enter your houses and deprive you of your honour. Nato can't remain in the air all the time."
There was a surge of excitement in the shabab ranks in the afternoon after a house where Colonel Gaddafi had supposedly taken refuge was surrounded, although no attempts had been made to force an entry by the early evening. But the Associated Press reported that Colonel Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim had called its Cairo office to insist that the battle was not over. "All of the leader's family are fine," Mr Ibrahim said, adding that top military and political aides remained with Colonel Gaddafi. He said his paymaster was capable of continuing resistance for "weeks, months and years".
With the assault on Abu Salim apparently stalling, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the TNC, said that local deals were permitted with loyalists even in Tripoli. But the regime forces in the district showed no sign of compromise and Amar Jandan Mohammed, a rebel commander, said: "This will go to the finish. We are finding it difficult because they are hiding among the people. But we shall flush them out however long it takes." Karim Jaluddin, another fighter, said: "We have been depending a lot on Nato, but they cannot bomb Abu Salim because there are so many civilians."
Reports last night appeared to suggest the Gaddafi regime made attempts to stop the Nato campaign in Libya, lobbying influential figures in the US that included Barack Obama, Republican Senator John Boehner and Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich. The Guardian cited secret documents in Tripoli that indicated regime officials wrote to Mr Kucinich, inviting him to Tripoli on a "peace mission".
* The US and South Africa struck a deal last night to allow the release of $1.5bn in frozen Libya funds for humanitarian aid and other civilian needs. Council diplomats said the agreement would enable the funds to be released without a UN Security Council vote on a US draft resolution that Washington submitted to the council on Wednesday in response to South Africa blocking a US request to disburse the money in the UN Libya sanctions committee.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies