Monday, August 22, 2011
Libyan rebels fought to consolidate their hold on Tripoli on Monday, having pushed into the capital after months of fighting, as crowds celebrated in hopes that leader Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year reign was nearing its end.
The whereabouts of Gadhafi, whose regime appeared to be rapidly disintegrating, were unknown Monday. Violent clashes were reported in the area around his sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli.
Two of Gadhafi's sons, who have been key regime figures, were reportedly under arrest.
Monday's skirmishes in the capital followed a long night of celebration on Tripoli's Green Square, the symbolic heart of Gadhafi's power. Revelers on the square, once the scene of almost nightly rallies organized by the regime, fired triumphant shots into the air, set fire to the green flag of Gadhafi's government and blasted holes in a poster with the leader's image.
"No one wants to sleep today because we are so happy," said Hana Mohammed, 26, a resident of Tripoli.
But the capital was far from secure. "There is still a lot of nervousness," NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported as gunfire rang out around her.
Rebels continued to encounter pockets of resistance and sniper fire across the city.
Fighting near Gadhafi's command center is no guarantee that the leader is in hiding there. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson noted that there are far more rumors than reliable information about the Libyan leader's whereabouts. "He's not believed to be in Tripoli," she said, reporting from near Benghazi, an opposition stronghold in eastern Libya.
Despite the celebrating that took place overnight, a member of the rebel leadership, known as the National Transitional Council, cautioned that "it could take a week" for Tripoli to be secured, Sarhaddi Nelson said.
"You don't know where the pro-Gadhafi forces have melted away to," she said.
Garcia-Navarro said opposition leaders she spoke to "feel it is only a matter of time" before Gadhafi is captured.
President Obama on Sunday said Libya is "slipping from the grasp of a tyrant" and urged Gadhafi to relinquish power to prevent more bloodshed.
At A Glance: What's Happening In Libya
- Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, declared "the era of Gadhafi is over" at a Monday news conference in Benghazi.
- Crowds in the capital, Tripoli, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and elsewhere have poured into the streets to celebrate.
- Fighting continues in pockets of the capital, including around Gadhafi's compound at Bab al-Aziziya. The rebel leadership tells NPR it could still be a week before Tripoli is secured.
- Moammar Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but rebels quickly captured one of his sons, Seif al-Islam. Another son, Mohammed, is apparently under house arrest.
- President Obama has promised U.S. cooperation with the rebels, and British Prime Minister David Cameron says frozen Libyan assets will be released soon.
"The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people," Obama said in a statement from Martha's Vineyard, where he's vacationing. The president promised to work closely with rebels and "continue to insist that the basic rights of the Libyan people are respected."
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country played a lead role in the NATO air and missile campaign against Gadhafi, called on the Libyan leader to give up.
"I would like to see Col. Gadhafi face justice for his crimes," Cameron said Monday. "He has perpetrated horrendous crimes against his people."
Cameron said Britain was prepared as soon as possible to establish a diplomatic presence in a free Libya and to release Libyan assets that have been frozen since February to sanction the Gadhafi regime.
A Sudden Reversal
Gadhafi's defiance in angry audio messages broadcast on state television Sunday raised the specter of a last-ditch fight over the capital, home to 2 million people.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed the regime has "thousands and thousands of fighters" and vowed: "We will fight. We have whole cities on our sides. They are coming en masse to protect Tripoli to join the fight."
But Oliver Miles, who served as Britain's ambassador to Libya in the 1980s, said he was optimistic that Gadhafi's days are numbered.
"I think it's finished," Miles told NPR, acknowledging the Libyan leader was "deliberately unpredictable" and could still mount a surprise counteroffensive.
"I don't personally think that's much of a danger, simply because I think he's just lost control," he said.
Parts of the regime and military seemed to be abandoning Gadhafi, and NATO leaders also sounded optimistic that the conflict was coming to a close. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the regime was "clearly crumbling" and that the time to create a new democratic Libya has arrived.
Gadhafi seemed to have had a firm grip on western Libya just weeks ago, despite months of NATO airstrikes on his military. Rebels had been unable to make any advances as they bogged down on the main fronts with regime troops in the east and center of the country.
The uprising against Gadhafi broke out in mid-February, and anti-regime protests quickly spread. A brutal crackdown quickly transformed the protests into an armed rebellion. Rebels seized Libya's east, setting up an internationally recognized transitional government there, and two pockets in the west: the port city of Misrata and the Nafusa mountain range.
Gadhafi clung to the remaining territory, and for months neither side had been able to break the other.
In early August, however, rebels launched an offensive, intending to open a new, western front to break the deadlock. They fought their way down to the Mediterranean coastal plain, backed by NATO airstrikes, and captured the strategic city of Zawiya.
'Time For Justice'
As opposition fighters pushed into Tripoli, they quickly captured Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, who along with his father faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said his office would talk to the rebels on Monday about Seif al-Islam's transfer for trial. "It is time for justice, not revenge," Moreno-Ocampo told The Associated Press.
Seif al-Islam, his father and Libya's intelligence chief were indicted earlier this year for allegedly ordering, planning and participating in illegal attacks on civilians in the early days of the crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
Gadhafi's other son, Mohammed, appeared to be under house arrest Monday. Mohammed, who is in charge of Libyan telecommunications, told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera that his house was surrounded by armed rebels.
"They have guaranteed my safety. I have always wanted good for all Libyans and was always on the side of God," he said. The sound of heavy gunfire broke out near the end of the interview, and Mohammed said rebels had entered his house before the phone line cut off.