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Libyan rebels enter Tripoli, meet only sporadic resistance

The ICC confirms that Moammar Kadafi's son and onetime heir apparent, Seif Islam Kadafi, has been captured. Both sides claim the upper hand as uprisings are reported across Tripoli.

August 22, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Supporters of the Libyan rebels gather at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia.
Supporters of the Libyan rebels gather at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. (EPA )

Reporting from Cairo — Rebels swept into the heart of the Libyan capital, meeting only sporadic resistance from forces loyal toMoammar Kadafi who were trying to protect a rapidly shrinking stronghold in the face of the insurgent onslaught, NATO airstrikes and uprisings in neighborhoods acrossTripoli.

After six months of fighting, it was clear that Kadafi's loyalists were being pressed hard on multiple and shifting fronts. Rebels advanced from the south, east and west while Muslim clerics urged armed residents in the city and its outskirts to confront theLibyan army.

The whereabouts of the man who has ruled Libya for more than four decades were unknown. Television reports showed jubilant rebel fighters in Green Square, where Kadafi supporters have held almost nightly rallies during the uprising. Young men in Tripoli stomped on posters of Kadafi while waving rebel flags in bullet-pocked streets.

It was unclear whether Kadafi's forces had been overwhelmed or were creating a lull before a counterattack. Poorly trained and undisciplined rebels have made dramatic advances in the past, only to be pushed back by Kadafi loyalists. U.S. officials cautioned that Kadafi retained supporters in the military, who could launch vicious urban fighting.

But the Obama administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Kadafi's regime was crumbling, and called on him to avoid further bloodshed. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court confirmed rebel reports that Kadafi's son and onetime heir apparent, Seif Islam, had been captured. The court has indicted Kadafi, Seif Islam and Libya's intelligence chief on charges of planning attacks on civilians in the early days of the uprising.

Rebels said another son, Mohammed, had surrendered. Media reports said opposition forces had overrun the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by another son, Khamis. The headquarters, which insurgents looted of weapons and ammunition, is about 15 miles outside the capital. Its loss would be a major strategic setback for the Libyan army and a large symbolic victory for the rebels.

Though Moammar Kadafi has not been seen in public for weeks, a series of audio broadcasts Sunday added a surreal air to the rebel advance and celebrations in downtown Tripoli. "The tribes must march to Tripoli now to defend and purify it," he told Libyans. "How can you allow Tripoli to be burned?"

The intense pressure on Kadafi throughout the day led his government to offer a cease-fire, warning that atrocities might occur if the rebel offensive wasn't stopped. But even as that appeal was made, Kadafi taunted the insurgents as rats, and a newscaster on state television brandished a pistol on air and promised to kill rebels.

The government calls for "an immediate halt of NATO's aggression against our nation and for all parties to sit down and begin a peaceful way out of this crisis," spokesman Musa Ibrahim said at a news conference in Tripoli. "We believe unless the international community heeds this appeal, many people will be killed and terrible crimes will be committed."

Speaking late Sunday night, Ibrahim said Libyan forces were battling the rebels, whom he described as "vengeful, hateful" tribes, across Tripoli in the neighborhoods of Janzour, Gargaresh and elsewhere. "NATO will be held responsible morally and legally for the deaths" occurring that night, he said.

In a mind game of intrigue and deception, each side was claiming the upper hand through much of the day. Opposition forces advancing from the town of Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, retreated after fierce battles. They gathered in Jaddayim and regrouped for another onslaught. Rebel leaders said their supporters had rallied inside the capital as part of a coordinated operation, but the government claimed "armed gangs" had been defeated.

The collaborators with "the West are moving from one town to the next claiming control, but they are not in control, they are escaping like rats," Kadafi said in an audio broadcast on Libyan television early Sunday. "People are kissing my picture. I am their leader, I am their father."

But rebels claimed that hundreds of Kadafi loyalists and soldiers had abandoned their posts. They said opposition sympathizers took control of a neighborhood in east Tripoli while residents in other parts of the capital fled food and gas shortages.

Rebels also claimed to have sent fighters, weapons and ammunition by boat from Misurata, a city east of Tripoli that had been cut off and besieged for much of the conflict.

NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie told reporters in Brussels that the fast-moving events were complicating the choosing of targets for airstrikes by the alliance. "There is no longer a traditional front line as we had in other phases of the conflict," Lavoie said.

Operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians, NATO has conducted months of airstrikes to weaken Kadafi's forces.

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