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Libyan rebels tighten grip on Tripoli as Kadafi stays in hiding

Libyan insurgents claim control of 80% of Tripoli but report heavy casualties in fierce fighting outside Moammar Kadafi's compound and other pockets of the city.

August 22, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — Moammar Kadafi remained in hiding Monday as rebels consolidated their grip on much of the Libyan capital amid celebrations and fierce gun battles in pockets ofTripoli that have refused to buckle to opposition forces.

Heavy fighting rumbled outside Kadafi's compound Bab Al-Azizia in southernTripoli, and a rebel leader said insurgents sustained heavy losses overnight and this morning. Opposition forces told Al Jazeera they controlled about 80% of the city, depicting a still-precarious victory.

NATO announced it would continue airstrikes against Kadafi's army. But doing so inTripoli's dense urban environment runs a high risk of civilian casualties.

Photos: Rebellion inLibya

Kadafi's tanks and snipers took strategic positions in several neighborhoods and it was uncertain whether the erratic leader, who has ruled the nation for 42 years, could muster a counterattack.

A senior rebel commander told Reuters: "Snipers are the main problem. There is a big number of martyrs."

The latest information is "that the vast majority ofTripoli is now being controlled by free Libyan forces, although fighting continues and some of it is extremely fierce," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Monday in London. "His regime is falling apart and is in full retreat."

Attention shifted quickly to how the Transitional National Council, the rebel governing body, would control a nation battered and divided by six months of fighting that has swept across deserts, oil refineries and coastal highways. The rebels have been prone to tribal divisions, and Western officials are worried about power struggles and revenge killings.

The Kadafi government said that 1,300 people had been killed and more than 3,000 injured since Saturday. Those figures could not be independently confirmed. TheInternational Criminal Court and rebel leaders were negotiating the fate of Kadafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif Islam, who was captured Sunday and faces allegations of war crimes.

Rebels said another son, Mohammed, had surrendered. Media reports said opposition forces had overrun the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by a third 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 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 Sunday 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 the 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.

Each side was claiming the upper hand Sunday. 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 amid food and gas shortages.

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

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