Rebels Storm Gaddafi Compound


gaddafi-compoundRebel fighters overwhelmed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sprawling compound on Tuesday, crashing through its outer gates, running pell-mell through the grounds and ransacking caches of weapons abandoned by his shrinking retinue of defenders. Colonel Qaddafi and his family were nowhere to be found.While the crackle of gunfire and rumble of explosions could still be heard across a confused and wary Libyan capital, with the possibility of more fighting in days to come, the rebel invasion and pillaging of the Bab al-Aziziya compound seemed to represent an important symbolic moment for the rebel movement seeking to oust Colonel Qaddafi and his sons from power.

Hundreds of rebel fighters on foot and in pickup trucks moved quickly into the compound, where smoky fires shrouded the palm trees and bullet-scarred multistory buildings of what the rebels have called Colonel Qaddafi’s last hideout. Squads of rebels searched the buildings room by room. Many of the buildings were looted, and rebel fighters could be seen walking around with high-quality advanced machine guns and, in one case, a gold-plated rifle. Some of the looted weapons were still wrapped in plastic.

CNN showed images of fighters emerging from one building carrying what its reporter was told were medical files of the Qaddafi family. Other footage broadcast by Al Jazeera and other networks showed rebels commandeering a Qaddafi golf cart, which they hitched to a truck and paraded down a street.

In what could become a defining image of the day, video footage on Al Jazeera showed fighters scrambling to upend one of Colonel Qaddafi’s favorite sculptures: a giant fist crushing an American warplane. Colonel Qaddafi installed the sculpture in front of a house in the compound that was bombed in 1986 on the orders of President Reagan, at a time when Libya was considered a pariah state. The wrecked building became Colonel Qaddafi’s backdrop for major speeches, including his defiant challenge to the rebels at the start of their uprising six months ago.

Despite rebel claims of a new triumph, it was not clear by nightfall whether they had complete control of the compound – or for that matter, whether the rebel gains in Tripoli were the beginnings of a decisive victory in the conflict – or the start of potentially prolonged street fighting for control of the capital. Overstated claims of advances by the rebels – including the arrests of two Qaddafi sons that later proved false – have not helped their credibility.

Nonetheless it was clear that the stamina of the Qaddafi regime had been exhausted.

A spokesman for the Transitional National Council, the rebel government based in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising began, said that the rebels assumed that Colonel Qaddafi was still in Libya. “We believe that he is either in Tripoli or close to Tripoli,” the spokesman, Guma el-Gamaty, told BBC television. “Sooner or later, he will be found, alive and arrested – and hopefully that is the best outcome we want – or if he resists, he will be killed.”

Russian news agencies reported earlier that Colonel Qaddafi had a telephone conversation with the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, who is one of Colonel Qaddafi’s eccentric circle of foreign friends. Mr. Ilyumzhinov quoted Colonel Qaddafi as saying that he was alive and well in Tripoli. Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, who made a surprise appearance on Monday at a hotel with foreign journalists to refute reports of his arrest, also boasted that his father was safe in Tripoli.

They were the first indications of the besieged leader’s location and condition since the rebels swept into Tripoli on Saturday, in what appeared to be a crucial turn in the Libya conflict, the most violent of the Arab spring uprisings.

Video footage and eyewitness reports from elsewhere in Tripoli depicted heavy clashes around the international airport, which the rebels had claimed to control.

NATO officials in Brussels and London said the alliance’s warplanes, which have been helping the rebels, were flying reconnaissance and other missions over Libya.

“Our mission is not over yet,” said Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, at a news conference in Naples, Italy, urging pro-Qaddafi forces to return to their barracks. “Until this is the case we will carry on with our mission.” Asked if the alliance knew where Colonel Qaddafi was, he said: “We don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”

“The situation in Tripoli is still very serious and very dangerous,” Colonel Lavoie said.

He acknowledged that the urban environment in Tripoli, a city of some two million, was “far more complex” for airstrikes than past targets have been. But he said the alliance had precision weapons at its disposal to enforce its United Nations Security Council mandate, which is to protect civilians from attack.

Elsewhere, rebels claimed they had had seized control of Ras Lanuf, an important Mediterranean oil port, and that loyalist soldiers defending it had fled west to Colonel Qaddafi’s home town of Surt, according to news reports from Benghazi. There was no confirmation of the reports about Ras Lanuf, which has changed hands previously in the seesaw pattern of the Libya revolt.

Additionally, Al Arabiya satellite television reported, rebels killed dozens of pro-Qaddafi troops on Tuesday in a convoy from Surt. There was no independent corroboration of the report. The Pentagon reported late on Monday that its warplanes had shot down a Scud missile fired from Surt.

While rebel leaders said on Monday that they were planning for a post-Qaddafi government, the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Tripoli was a vacuum of power: no cohesive rebel government was in place, and remnants of the Qaddafi government were still in evidence.

Such was the uncertainty that the International Organization for Migration in Geneva said it had delayed a seaborne mission to rescue hundreds of foreigners from Tripoli because “security guarantees and assurances are no longer in place,” said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization. A ship that left the eastern port of Benghazi on Monday, bound for Tripoli, would remain at sea until some level of safety for the mission could be assured but would not dock in Tripoli as planned on Tuesday, she said in a telephone interview.

The BBC reported meanwhile that the Qaddafi-controlled Rixos luxury hotel in central Tripoli, where most foreign reporters are based, had also come under attack on Tuesday, sending some reporters to take cover in a basement.

“There are still some pockets of resistance,” the French foreign minister, Alain JuppĂ©, said in a radio interview in Paris, but he said he believed “the fall of Qaddafi is close.” Along with the United States and Britain, France has played a central role in the diplomatic and military campaigns to oust Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. JuppĂ© said those efforts still needed time “to get to the end of this operation.”

On the diplomatic front, Oman, Bahrain and Iraq said on Tuesday that they formally recognized the rebel authorities, following Egypt, which took the same step on Monday, calling the Transitional National Council the “new regime.” Mohammed Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, said that the council would take over the Libyan Embassy in Cairo, and would assume Libya’s seat on the Arab League, which is based in Cairo.

It was not clear if the renewed fighting was linked to the surprise reappearance of Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, whose capture the rebels had trumpeted since Sunday but who walked as a free man to the Rixos Hotel early Tuesday. He boasted to foreign journalists there that his father was safe in Tripoli, his government was still “in control” and that the rebels had been lured into a trap, the BBC and news services reported. The episode raised significant questions about the credibility of rebel leaders, who had claimed to be holding him prisoner.

It was not clear whether he had been in rebel custody and escaped, or was never held at all. Another Qaddafi son, Muhammad, escaped from house arrest on Monday.

The struggle to a impose a new order on the capital presents a crucial test of the rebel leadership’s many pledges to replace Colonel Qaddafi’s bizarre autocracy with the democratic rule of law, and it could have consequences across the country and throughout the Arab world.

Unlike the swift and largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan insurrection was the first revolt of the Arab Spring to devolve into a protracted armed struggle, and at times threatened to descend into a civil war of factions and tribes.

A rebel failure to deliver on their promises of justice and reconciliation here in the capital could spur Qaddafi loyalists around Libya to fight on. And an ugly outcome here might discourage strong foreign support for democracy movements elsewhere.

For now, governments throughout the West and the Middle East welcomed the rebels’ successes and pledged to assist them in the transition. The Iraqi government announced Tuesday that it had recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. The European Union said on Monday that it had begun planning for a post-Qaddafi era, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, flew to Benghazi on Tuesday and met with the rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil.

{The NY Times/ Newscenter}