Originally published August 23, 2011 at 6:41 a.m., updated August 23, 2011 at 1:10 p.m.
Libyan rebels seized control of Moammar Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound Tuesday after NATO airstrikes blasted a hole in an outer wall.
Hundreds of fighters poured inside the fortress-like complex and raised the opposition flag over Gadhafi's personal residence. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from inside the compound, said the rebels were firing weapons into the air and that civilians were streaming in by the thousands to join in the celebration.
"A lot of the weapons that they're using have been looted from this compound. There's a very large weapons silo here, with newly minted weapons and the people are now taking them away," she said.
"Bab al-Aziziya was the seat of Gadhafi's power and one of the most important locations in the country," she said. "People are just going crazy. They are so excited about being able to come in here."
Rebels ran through the compound's gardens, shouting and raising their rifles in triumph. One of the fighters climbed a statue of a golden fist crushing an American warplane. The statue was erected by Gadhafi as a symbol of defiance after a 1986 U.S. airstrike against the compound.
There was no immediate sign of Gadhafi or his family, and fighting continued in the capital as the rebels maneuvered to take the city once and for all amid stiff resistance from loyalist forces.
Garcia-Navarro said the rebels also were engaged in gunbattles with pro-regime forces on the road to the city's airport and near Green Square, which was the site of jubilant celebration on Sunday as the rebels entered Tripoli.
The fierce street fighting undercut hopes of a quick rebel victory in the Libyan capital and came hours after Gadhafi's son turned up free despite reports of his capture and taunted the opposition.
Seif al-Islam, the Libyan leader's heir apparent, made a surprise appearance at the Rixos hotel a day after the rebels and the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court had announced he was in custody.
Dressed in a T-shirt and camouflage trousers, Seif al-Islam drove up in a white limousine escorted by armored SUVs at the hotel, where about 30 foreign journalists are staying. He took reporters on a tour through parts of Tripoli still under the regime's control.
When asked about the ICC report that he had been arrested, he told reporters early Tuesday: "The ICC can go to hell," and added, "We are going to break the backbone of the rebels."
A spokesman for the rebel leadership, Sadeq al-Kabir, seemed stunned by news that Seif al-Islam was free and initially said it was a lie. He said he could not confirm whether Gadhafi's son had escaped from rebel custody, but he did admit that another son, Mohammed, had escaped house arrest Monday.
"The real moment of victory is when Gadhafi is captured," said Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi. He acknowledged that the rebels had no idea where the 69-year-old Gadhafi is or whether he was even in Tripoli.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said Seif al-Islam's sudden appearance "comes as a big blow and an embarrassment for the rebels and for the international community."
Rebel forces faced only light resistance as they poured into the capital over the weekend. For some six months, capturing Tripoli had been seen as the end game in a war against Gadhafi, but by late Monday it was becoming clear that regime forces were not about to give up without a fight.
"There was a sense that taking the capital was going to be extremely easy," NPR's Garcia-Navarro reported earlier from the city of Zawiya, west of the capital. "What we saw yesterday was in fact a city in chaos — neighborhoods that were thought to be secure or even loyal to the rebellion. In fact, when I was there, we saw running street battles taking place, with snipers."
Pro-regime troops used anti-aircraft guns and mortars against the rebels Tuesday in gunbattles that thrust thick clouds of gray and white smoke over the capital of 2 million people.
The rebels themselves seemed to be more circumspect about the fight for control of Tripoli. Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman said the "danger is still there" as long as Gadhafi remains on the run. He warned that pro-regime brigades are positioned on Tripoli's outskirts and could "be in the middle of the city in half an hour."
NATO has vowed to keep up its air campaign until all pro-Gadhafi forces surrender or return to their barracks. The alliance's warplanes have hit at least 40 targets in and around Tripoli in the past two days — the highest number on a single geographic location since the bombing started in March, NATO said.
"We remain vigilant and we will strike targets if they threaten the civilian population," NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said in Brussels. "There are still weapons out there and there are still targets."
Should the opposition seize control and pending U.N. approval, the European Union was preparing to unfreeze billions of dollars in Libyan assets, the bloc's foreign policy chief said Tuesday.
"This is a rich country. The question is how to get the economy moving again quickly," Catherine Ashton said in Brussels.
The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that a rescue mission to pluck 300 foreign nationals from the Libyan capital had been delayed by fighting. The Geneva-based group says an IOM-chartered ship will remain off the coast of Tripoli "until security conditions have improved and the safety of staff and migrants can be guaranteed."
Meanwhile, much of Tripoli appeared to be hunkering down until it is clear who the victors will be. Despite a turnout of large crowds Sunday to celebrate the rebels' arrival, residents appeared to be on edge and unsure, NPR's Garcia-Navarro said.
In many neighborhoods in the capital, "civilians ... are still too frightened to even give their names, to have their voices recorded," she said. "They still feel that the situation is so tenuous that Gadhafi could come back and take over again."
With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Tripoli and Zawiya and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Benghazi. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.