Libyan rebels fought heavily armed holdouts in several districts of Tripoli on Wednesday as they struggled to consolidate their grip on the capital, a day after sacking Moammar Kadafi’s feared command-and-control center.
Gunfire, the thud of mortars and the whiz of an occasional rocket filled the air over the city. Terrified residents mostly stayed indoors, with commercial districts largely shut down. Rebels armed with assault rifles manned checkpoints along roads, searching cars for contraband and preventing civilians from entering huge swaths of the city’s southeast quadrant because of ongoing gun battles.
There was no word from Kadafi, whose 42 years in power were all but over, or any indication where he, his sons and his daughter were hiding.
Kadafi’s deputy intelligence chief joined many other high-ranking defectors. In an interview with an Arab satellite television channel, Gen. Khalifah Mohammed Ali urged those still loyal to Kadafi to join the rebels.
Rebels offered a reward for the capture of Kadafi, and at Libyan embassies around the world, remaining support for him crumbled. As rebels and their international backers prepared to rebuild Libya without Kadafi, the head of the rebels governing council met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. Washington asked the U.N. Security Council for permission to release $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets.
On the streets of Tripoli and in some areas of the countryside, the fighting continued. Jamal Diviski, a former fighter pilot from the city of Misurata now serving as a rebel commander, said a “street war” between residents was going on in southeast Tripoli.
“We will do some operations there tomorrow, but they are fighting with each other,” he said.
The Transitional National Council, the rebels’ de facto government, said it intends to move to Tripoli this week from its current headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi. It ordered police to resume work Thursday, said Officer Mohammad Azzoum, a ranking police academy instructor who said he was summoned back to regular duty by his superiors.
Despite the collapse of the political system, there were few instances of looting. One exception was Kadafi’s Bab Azizia compound. Another was the institute that published and promoted Kadafi’s Green Book. That entire complex was trashed, with copies of his tract strewn on the streets.
An Italian journalist called his editors to report that he and three colleagues had been kidnapped by regime loyalists on the road to Tripoli from the west.
But rebels managed to free a group of foreign journalists held since Sunday by Kadafi loyalists inside the Rixos Hotel, located in southeast Tripoli. Rebel fighters said they pummeled the site with mortars and gunfire for days, all the while remaining in communication with the journalists inside to avoid hurting them. Eventually the gunmen in the hotel melted away.
The journalists said they managed to defuse a potentially explosive situation by leveling with the lead guard at the hotel, telling him that the battle was over -- and that rebels were wearing Kadafi’s clothes in the leader’s Bab Azizia compound. The man broke down and wept, handing his weapon over to one of the journalists.
Medical staff at the city’s Central Hospital struggled to treat a torrent of patients with gunshot wounds, with many more unable to get to hospitals because of a lack of fuel for transport and the danger on the roads. Most of the fighting, said medical workers and rebels, was in the neighborhoods of Hadba and Abu Salim, a major Kadafi stronghold, as well as along the road to Tripoli’s airport.
Residents of Zwara, a port town about 70 miles west of Tripoli, reported heavy shelling by Kadafi loyalists. In Tripoli, Kadafi draws much of his support from the Abu Salim neighborhood. Many residents are members of the Warfalla tribe, which was given perks and privileges in exchange for the fealty to the leader.
Rebels said they had seized control of the infamous Abu Salim prison south of Tripoli, which played an important role in launching the protests that eventually turned into Libya’s rebel movement.
The protests, which started in February, reportedly were launched by relatives of those killed in a massacre at Abu Salim 15 years ago, who were angered by the detention of a lawyer who had served as their spokesman. About 1,200 prisoners were killed at the prison in 1996 after objecting to prison conditions.
In Hadba, residents shopping for groceries hit the ground as gunfire erupted at a nearby intersection. “It’s Kadafi’s army!” one man shouted, sending residents scurrying to their cars and driving off.
Suddenly, dozens of heavily armed men emerged from the side streets and began rushing toward the outbreak of violence. A notorious Kadafi loyalist named Fatih Ojbeh and others were said to have taken refuge and began firing from the second story of a heavily fortified concrete building.
Rebels crouched down and inched forward, showing some of the lack of discipline that has plagued them since the beginning of the uprising. They shot randomly, sometimes into the street. At least one rebel fighter was killed, and his body lay on the sidewalk.
A small group of fighters dodged gunfire crossing the street and reached the building entrance. “If you surrender you’ll be saved,” a rebel fighter called out to the gunmen. One of the loyalists dropped his gun out of the window.
“Come down! Come down!” they shouted.
A terrified man in his early 20s came down the steps. Rebels began screaming at him. But a grandfatherly fighter with a white beard wrapped his arms around him and pulled him away. “No will touch him,” he announced.
A few minutes later, rebels stormed the building, grabbing second gunman and dragging him away. “Forgive me! Forgive me!” said the man, who gave his name as Abdul Salaam Masri. An angry mob surrounded him, but he was also pushed into a car and driven away.
Ojbeh himself was later killed in the fighting.