Rebels stormed Moammar Kadafi's central compound Tuesday, detaining his supporters and searching for the aging leader as gunfire sounded and columns of black smoke billowed from the building.
Hundreds of rebels entered the green gates of Kadafi's expansive Bab Azizia complex and poured inside, some driving golf carts and firing their guns in celebration, said an Associated Press reporter who looked on after hours of fierce gun battles and NATO airstrikes against the building.
Kadafi's whereabouts were not immediately known.
Rebel fighters could be seen on CNN emerging from the compound with items they had seized: guns, vehicles and medical files that appeared to belong to the Libyan strongman's relatives, including his son, Seif Islam Kadafi.
"We have it, we have it, we're winning this fight! God is great, we're here," they cheered in the streets outside the compound.
However, it was not yet clear whether rebels had captured the sprawling complex, which reportedly sits atop a maze of tunnels and secret passageways. Some in the streets feared further bloodshed before Kadafi is ousted.
"We hope this over soon. I fear that the violence will continue until Kadafi and his family have left the country," one bystander, identifying himself only as Omar, an unemployed engineer, told Reuters.
Another unnamed man added: "Kadafi is finished, even if some snipers and mercenaries are still resisting. But there is no doubt that we are free and Kadafi is finished."
As many as 500 highly trained fighters from the rebel-controlled city of Misurata were said to be participating in the battle for Kadafi's compound.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, 19, was spotted by an Associated Press reporter walking down one of the main roads of the compound with a grenade launcher in one hand and a Kalashnikov rifle in the other. The teenager, who is from Misurata, said he felt "an explosion of joy inside."
"I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Kadafi's house," he said. "Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
A NATO spokeswoman expressed confidence that the world was witnessing "the final chapter" of the Kadafi regime.
"The end is near, and events are moving fast," said the spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu. "What's clear to everybody is that Kadafi is history, and the sooner he realizes it, the better."
Heavy artillery fire could be heard near the Rixos hotel housing several dozen foreign journalists. It was not clear how close the fighting was to the hotel, but a Reuters reporter said it seemed to be crossing the area and had shaken the building. She said journalists at the hotel were being told it was surrounded by soldiers.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said coalition forces would do what they could to protect the reporters and others at risk in the capital.
"We will do what we can from the position that we have and from our aerial assets to try to protect those in the Rixos hotel and elsewhere," Rice said, praising the coalition's response to the Libyan conflict. "Time was created and space was created as Kadafi's forces were halted in their tracks for the opposition to advance the Libyan people's desire for a safe and stable future," she said.
NATO officials in Brussels said the alliance's warplanes were flying over Tripoli on Tuesday, but that there have been no bombing runs.
Alliance officials warned that the situation in Tripoli remained very dangerous and promised that the alliance would continue bombing forces loyal to the 69-year-old Libyan leader if they keep fighting.
"Snipers, shelling, missiles could do much damage, but they can't change the course of history or the outcome of this campaign," spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said at a news conference in Naples, Italy. "Tripoli is still the site of numerous clashes between pro- and anti-Kadafi forces and the tension is far from being over."
Rebels based in the western Nafusa Mountain range continued to pour into the Kadafi-controlled lowlands, challenging Kadafi's forces around the capital's international airport. A sense of paranoia pervaded some rebel ranks, with rumors of a "fifth column" of Kadafi loyalists firing at rebels while flying the red, black and green flag of the opposition.
"There are snipers here," said Hisham Hassan, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in the western Tripoli district of Zanzour. "Sometimes they are atop mosques and sometimes on schools."
Residents described corpses on roadways and deprivation as the battle appeared to reach a climax.
"There is fire and rockets," said Faiza bin Taleb, 43, sitting in a car outside Tripoli with her three children in the back seat. "We have no electricity and no water. It's difficult to leave our homes but my children were afraid and constantly crying."
The heavy fighting has taken a toll on the city's civilians. Dr. Fathi Arabi, an orthopedist at Tripoli's Central Hospital, said between 50 and 100 people had been killed and hundreds wounded at his facility alone.
But the sense of joy at overcoming Kadafi was palpable. Several residents said the opposition controlled vast swaths of the city. At checkpoints inside Tripoli, rebels placed the once-ubiquitous canvas portraits of Kadafi on the ground for drivers to run over. A two-man team armed with spray paint scoured public buildings and roadways to deface his portrait and cross out his name. Rebels ignored news that Seif Islam Kadafi was alive and well and giving interviews, and not imprisoned as the rebel leadership had claimed.
"We know Kadafi is gone," said Hossam Khalifa, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in eastern Tripoli.
Special correspondent Rym Marrouch in Tripoli and Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles contributed to this report.