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Libyan rebels tighten grip on Tripoli

Moammar Kadafi's whereabouts remain a mystery, but his forces are still in areas of the capital. His son Seif Islam appears at a hotel held by Kadafi's forces. Rebels had said he had been captured.

August 23, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive through a district in Tripoli, the capital.
Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive through a district in Tripoli,… (Bob Strong, Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Rebels pouring in from the countryside strengthened their grip on much of the Libyan capital, setting up checkpoints and securing buildings even as longtime leader Moammar Kadafi evaded their grasp and pockets of his loyalists continued to put up fierce resistance.

Heavy fighting rumbled around Kadafi's Bab Azizia compound in southern Tripoli, and throughout the capital rebels said they had sustained heavy losses. The opposition forces claimed control of about 80% of the city, which was at once jubilant with waving flags and precarious with the rattle of gunfire.

Attention quickly focused on how the Transitional National Council, the rebels' governing body, would impose order on a fractious tribal nation battered by six months of revolt. The rebels are prone to divisions and Western officials worry that power struggles and the desire for revenge may threaten stability much as they did after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Photos: Libyan rebellion

But the rebels' sense of momentum suffered a blow early Tuesday when Kadafi's son and onetime heir apparent, Seif Islam, appeared at a Tripoli hotel that remained in the hands of Kadafi's forces. The rebels had claimed Sunday that they had captured him. Another son, Mohammed, was reported to have escaped rebel custody.

Kadafi's tanks and snipers took strategic positions in several Tripoli neighborhoods. Still, it was uncertain if the mercurial man who referred to himself as Brother Leader and ruled the nation for nearly 42 years could muster a potent counterattack.

NATO indicated that it would continue its airstrikes against the Libyan leader's army. That poses a high risk of civilian casualties in Tripoli, a dense urban landscape with more than 1.6 million people. But the pressing question for rebel leaders and NATO commanders was Kadafi's whereabouts. Unlike on previous days, the Libyan leader released no new audio broadcasts.

In comments to reporters, Seif Islam said his father remained in Tripoli.

"We do not know if he is inside or outside Libya," Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebel government, said during a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi, the insurgents' de facto capital.

Underscoring the importance of that question in a country emblazoned with Kadafi's image and shaped by his personality, one Tripoli resident said: "We cannot feel peace. We cannot feel victory until we see Kadafi captured."

East of Tripoli, rebels said Kadafi's forces were retreating from Port Brega on the coastal highway toward Surt, Kadafi's birthplace and tribal stronghold. Kadafi's forces reportedly fired a Scud missile from near Surt on Monday; the target was unclear.

The rebels received support from governments around the world, including Egypt, which is struggling to build a democracy after its revolution overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February. The United Nations said it was organizing a meeting with the Arab League and African Union to help Libya emerge from Kadafi's legacy.

"Now is the time for all Libyans to focus on national unity and reconciliation," Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the U.N., told journalists. "This is a hopeful moment but also there are risks ahead."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said officials of Italy's oil giant, Eni, had arrived in Libya to try to determine when it could restart its oil facilities. Before the uprising, Libya exported about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, amassing about $50 billion a year in revenues for a population of only 6 million. But much of the money never reached Kadafi's fellow Libyans, who clamored for schools, hospitals and other institutions.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, one of the main participants in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign against Kadafi, told reporters in London that "his regime is falling apart and is in full retreat."

The latest information is "that the vast majority of Tripoli is now being controlled by free Libyan forces, although fighting continues and some of it is extremely fierce," he said.

Rebels in pickup trucks laden with high-caliber guns roared into Tripoli throughout Monday. Insurgent leaders set up checkpoints and secured buildings. Representatives of the Transitional National Council met with Kadafi loyalists to prevent chaos from sweeping the capital. The effort was part of a larger aim to create unity among disparate tribes and ethnicities whose differences Kadafi had manipulated for decades.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Berbers in the west, whose rebel forces reached the capital first, will cooperate with tribes from the east. Both sides were united in defeating a dictator, but those bonds will be tested in debates over the distribution of Libya's oil wealth and a new national government.

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