When they finally had overrun Moammar Kadafi’s vast fortress and crushed the illusion that he still ruled them, euphoric rebels hunted down symbols of the power Libya’s leader had held over nearly every aspect of their lives.
They torched the Bedouin tent where Kadafi famously met with dignitaries and journalists. They drove around in one of the golf carts in which he navigated the compound. They mocked him by trying on a cheap plastic military hat that he might have worn in photos and on television.
Rebel fighters converging onTripoli from several directions burst Tuesday into the Bab Azizia compound, where Kadafi had once lived and ruled. Neither he nor his most high-profile son was there, but the triumph at Bab Azizia all but marked the end of the aging leader’s nearly 42 years in power.
The fast-moving rebel takeover plunged Tripoli into chaos, with celebratory fire from automatic weapons and even antiaircraft weaponry lighting up the sky late into the night. At midnight, crowds still were gathered in the capital’s Martyrs’ Square, renamed since the rebels captured it Sunday.
Drivers leaned on their horns and the city’s mosques echoed with calls in praise of God. The red, black and green rebel flag flew over Bab Azizia, which President Reagan bombed in 1986.
“There is no fear anymore,” said Khaled Azwam, a man in his 30s, who sat in his car with his wife and two sleeping children. They were waiting for things to quiet down so they could return home safely. “Kadafi is almost gone.”
The heavy fighting in recent days has taken a toll on the city’s civilians. Dr. Fathi Arabi, an orthopedist at Tripoli’s Central Hospital, reported between 50 and 100 dead and hundreds wounded at his facility alone by Tuesday afternoon.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose campaign of airstrikes has greatly aided the rebels, reported continued heavy resistance from Kadafi loyalists in a long stretch of the Mediterranean coast. They said Kadafi’s forces fired another Scud missile late Monday toward rebel forces, but it did not appear to cause any casualties. Along the front line in easternLibya, NATO said its forces destroyed two rocket launchers that were firing into rebel-held territory.
The explosion of people power showed Libyans’ rage at a regime that made them subject to Kadafi’s whim. But it also exposed challenges for both the Transitional National Council, the rebel authority in the eastern city of Benghazi, and Western officials who conducted a bombing campaign that greatly assisted the rebel cause.
Evidence of lawlessness was pervasive. Young men armed with assault rifles staffed checkpoints — part of a whole class of newly armed men who may not be willing to hand their weapons over to the authorities.
Though the rebels apparently defeated Kadafi, many wonder whether they will be able to provide security despite rebel leaders’ blithe assurances that fighters have been trained to protect facilities. Libya’s future leaders must quickly decide what to do with the both the rebel fighters and the regular armed forces.
Many of the best Libyan fighters are from the Nafusa Mountains in the west, and they are largely Berber. Their recent advances appeared to have made the decisive difference in the nearly six-month conflict. They probably will demand a greater say in the future of Libya, including language rights that may rankle the country’s Arab majority.
It remains unclear how many Libyans genuinely supported Kadafi. “You’re not welcome here,” one man said as he glared at a pair of Western journalists, yelling an obscenity.
Though many of the rebels complain that Kadafi squandered and stole the country’s vast oil wealth, oil production ground to a halt during the conflict, and the national economy with it. U.S. and European countries said Tuesday that they were preparing to remove a freeze on billions of dollars in Libyan assets to help rebel authorities restart the economy.
Rebel spokesmen in Benghazi said the Transitional National Council would move its headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli this week.
Kadafi’s whereabouts remained a mystery, and it was unclear why his forces appeared to give way Tuesday. Just hours earlier, his son and onetime heir apparent, Seif Islam, appeared at a hotel still controlled by Kadafi loyalists to prove to Western journalists that he had not been captured, as the rebels had claimed.
Kadafi is a master operator, who has throughout his career been a coup plotter, a terrorist mastermind, an opportunist and, to the disdain of his fellow Libyans, the Brother Leader, a title he bestowed upon himself as he spread his image across villages and cities.
In a local radio broadcast, Kadafi said he had made a tactical withdrawal from his compound, which he accused NATO of leveling with airstrikes. He vowed to fight to the death. His last audio broadcast had been Sunday. He was rumored to have moved to his tribal stronghold of Surt farther east along the Mediterranean, or perhaps to a hiding place along the border with Chad or Algeria. Or perhaps he was on his way to Venezuela. A longtime acquaintance in Russia said he had received a short telephone call in which Kadafi said he was still in Tripoli.
After days of seesawing fortunes, rebels said they were determined Tuesday to launch a concerted multi-pronged effort to crush the last bastion of Kadafi’s support. Black smoke billowed from Kadafi’s compound throughout the day.
Kadafi’s forces fiercely resisted the attack by rebel fighters from the west, from the coastal city ofMisurata to the east and from homegrown cells in the capital.
Rebels in Zintan and Zawiya to the west of Tripoli predicted early on that they would attack Bab Azizia, and appeared to have launched a coordinated assault on the complex at midmorning. Loud explosions and ferocious torrents of gunfire made all but the western edges of the capital dangerous to travel.
During one rebel advance, a group of Kadafi loyalists opened fire with machine guns, sending a convoy of rebels into a panicked, tire-screeching withdrawal.
But there appeared to be some method to the rebels’ moves. Immediately after the retreat by lightly armed fighters, a convoy of pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and antiaircraft weapons sped to the scene.
An intensification of NATO airstrikes may have helped them. Rebels have said they have in recent weeks been able to coordinate far better with the Western air support, as shown by the declining number of friendly fire incidents in which rebels were accidentally killed by Western forces.
The arrival of fighters from Misurata also may have made a difference. After being under siege for months, Misurata’s fighters managed to turn the tide and launch offensives westward toward Tripoli. Several hundred battle-hardened and trained fighters drove easily from Misurata into Tripoli over the last 48 hours or so.
At checkpoints inside Tripoli on Tuesday, 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.
Even though the fighting was far from over, many said they no longer cared that Kadafi was still on the loose.
Said Hossam Khalifa, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in eastern Tripoli: “We know Kadafi is gone.”
Special correspondent Ryma Marrouch in Tripoli and Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, David S. Cloud in Washington and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles contributed to this report.