TRIPOLI, August 21, 2011 (Reuters)
TRIPOLI, August 21, 2011 (Reuters)
Libyan rebels said they had seized control of pockets of Tripoli after a night of fighting, while allied forces advanced on the capital on Sunday, predicting a final showdown with Muammar Gaddafi.
The Libyan leader dismissed the rebels, fighting since February to topple him, as “rats” and said he would not yield.
In a coordinated revolt that rebels have been secretly planning for months to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, shooting started on Saturday night across Tripoli moments after Muslim clerics, using the louspeakers on mosque minarets, called people on to the streets.
The fighting inside Tripoli, combined with rebel advances to the outskirts of the city, appeared to signal the decisive phase in a six month conflict that has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings and embroiled NATO powers.
But Gaddafi’s fall is far from certain. His security forces did not buckle as some rebels had predicted. The uprising appeared to be isolated to a few neighbourhoods, and had not spread to the whole city.
If the Libyan leader is forced from power, there are question marks over whether the opposition can restore stability in this oil exporting country. The rebels’ own ranks have been wracked by disputes and rivalry.
But at daybreak, more than 12 hours after the fighting first broke out, shooting could still be heard in the capital, though it was less heavy and sustained than during the night.
A Reuters reporter at a hotel in the city centre said she could hear bursts of machine gun fire about every few minutes, and occasional booms from heavy weapons.
“Our revolutionaries are controlling several neighbourhoods and others are coming in from outside the city to join their brothers at this time,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the rebel National Transition Council, told Reuters in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Rebel advances outside Libya in the past week tipped the balance of the conflict against Gaddafi, and their ability to march into the city could now decide the outcome of the battle for Tripoli.
“Gaddafi’s chances for a safe exit are diminishing by the hour. The more he stays the narrower his base, and the easier it will be for him to be caught or killed,” Ashour Shamis, UK-based opposition editor and activist, said. “I think he’s not being told the whole picture. (His son) Saif al-Islam is the one who is leading the fight for him.”
Gaddafi’s whereabouts have been kept secret.
Rebel forces were gathering south of Tripoli, where they told a Reuters reporter they were preparing to attack Al-Aziziyah, a town about 45 km (27 miles) from the city. Another rebel force was trying to advance from Zlitan, about 150 km to the east.
The closest rebel contingent was in Zawiyah, half an hour’s drive to the west of Tripoli. Doctors at a clinic on the oustkirts said rebels has pushed 10 km east towards Tripoli and were fighting for control of a town called Jaddaim.
“It was very bloody in Jaddaim today. There are many more casualties at other hospitals,” said a doctor at the clinic, where three dead rebels had been brought by mid-morning on Sunday. The sound of artillery fire could be heard coming from the direction of the front line.
In Tripoli itself, the two sides appeared to be jockeying for control of rooftop terraces where they could place firing positions, possibly in preparation for a new burst of fighting after nightfall.
A rebel activist in Tripoli said pro-Gaddafi forces had put snipers on the rooftops of buildings around Bab al-Aziziyah, Gaddafi’s compound, and on the top of a nearby water tower.
As he spoke, single gunshots could be heard in the background, at intervals of a few seconds.
“Gaddafi’s forces are getting reinforcements to comb the capital,” said the activist, who spoke to a Reuters reporter outside Libya.
“Residents are crying, seeking help. One resident was martyred, many were wounded,” he said. It was not immediately possible to verify his account independently.
State television flashed up a message on the screen urging residents not to allow rebel gunmen to hide out on their rooftops.
“Agents and al Qaeda members are trying to destabilise and sabotage the city. You should prevent them from exploiting your houses and buildings, confront them and cooperate with counter-terrorism units, to capture them,” it said.
In an audio recording broadcast soon after midnight, Gaddafi sought to show residents he was still in control.
“Those rats … were attacked by the masses tonight and we eliminated them,” Gaddafi said. “I know that there are air bombardments but the fireworks were louder than the sound of the bombs thrown by the aircraft.”
A senior British official said Gaddafi did not grasp the pressure that he was under.
“It’s been clear that Gaddafi has not had a firm grip on reality — as we heard from his comments last night — and has not been interested personally in leaving or negotiating,” said Alastair Burt, a foreign office minister.
“But those around him have continued to defect.”
“That pressure indicates that those around Gaddafi know what’s going on. One can only hope that they’re getting messages through to him,” Burt told the BBC.