Rebels Take Control Of Tripoli While Gadhafi’s Whereabouts Are Unknown

Libyan rebels raced into Tripoli Sunday and met little resistance as Moammar Gadhafi’s defenders melted away and his 42-year rule rapidly crumbled. The euphoric fighters celebrated with residents of the capital in Green Square, the symbolic heart of the regime.

A libyan rebels security forces member raises his rifle as tens of thousands of Libyans celebrate what the rebels claim to be the first uprising in Tripoli against the Kadhafi's regime on August 21, 2011 at freedom square in Benghazi, Libya. Photo: DTN News/Flickr

The rebels marched into the capital and arrested two of his sons, while residents raucously celebrated the prospective end of his four-decade-old rule. Colonel Qaddafi’s precise whereabouts remained unknown.

The NTC also claimed that members of Gadhafi’s presidential guard have surrendered to the rebel forces. Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman said tanks emerged from the complex, known as Bab al-Aziziya, and began firing shortly after dawn.

Nouri Echtiwi, another rebel spokesman in Tripoli, told Reuters: “Four hours of calm followed the street celebrations. Then tanks and pick-up trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back came out of Bab al-Aziziya, the last of Gadhafi’s bastions, and started firing and shelling Assarin Street and al-Khalifa area. They fired randomly in all directions whenever they heard gunfire.”

The National Transitional Council, the rebel governing body, issued a mass text message saying: “We congratulate the Libyan people for the fall of Muammar Qaddafi and call on the Libyan people to go into the street to protect the public property. Long live free Libya.”

“It’s clear the regime is crumbling around him,” Alistair Burt, a British minister, said, referring to the Libyan leader. Gadhafi’s whereabouts were unknown, though state TV broadcast his bitter pleas for Libyans to defend his regime.

Gadhafi delivered a series of defiant audio messages on state television Sunday night. He acknowledged that the opposition forces were moving into Tripoli and warned that the city would be turned into another Baghdad.

“The traitors are paving the way for the occupation forces to be deployed in Tripoli,” he said, calling on his supporters to march in the streets of the capital and “purify it” from “the rats.”

Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said “the death toll [in Tripoli] is beyond imagination,” and said NATO has the blood of innocent Libyans on its hands because of the cover it provided for the rebel forces.

“NATO kills anything that moves,” he said, blaming NATO for the “true tragic event taking place in Tripoli.”

Gunfire and explosions were heard throughout the night inside the capital, where fighting flared up between Gadhafi forces and what the opposition called “sleeper cells” of rebels who had waited for the opposition’s main forces to lay siege to the city.

By the early hours of Monday, rebels controlled large parts of the capital. They set up checkpoints alongside residents — many of them secretly armed by rebel smugglers in recent weeks. But pockets of pro-Gadhafi fighters remained: In one area, Associated Press reporters with the rebels were stopped and told to take a different route because of regime snipers nearby.

“We were waiting for the signal and it happened,” Nour Eddin Shatouni, a 50-year-old engineer celebrating the apparent collapse of the strongman’s regime, told The Associated Press. “All mosques chanted ‘God is great’ all at once. We smelled a good scent, it is the smell of victory. We know it is the time.”

President Obama said Sunday night that Colonel Qaddafi and his inner circle had “to recognize that their rule has come to an end” and called on Colonel Qaddafi “to relinquish power once and for all.” He also called on the National Transitional Council to avoid civilian casualties and protect state institutions as it took control of the country.

“Tonight, the momentum against the Qaddafi regime has reached a tipping point,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant. The Qaddafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”

The secretary general of NATO, whose air strikes Gadhafi blamed for the rebels’ success, also said Gadhafi’s regime was “clearly crumbling.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said air strikes would continue if government troops make “any threatening moves toward the Libyan people.”

Gadhafi is the Arab world’s longest-ruling, most erratic, most grimly fascinating leader — presiding for 42 years over this North African desert republic with vast oil reserves and just 6 million people.

For years, he was an international pariah blamed for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

After years of denial, Gadhafi’s Libya acknowledged responsibility, agreed to pay up to $10 million to relatives of each victim, and declared he would dismantle all weapons of mass destruction. [via The New York Times, MSN, ABC and Yahoo!]

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