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Kadafi remains elusive, defiant as fighting continues in Tripoli

Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in a TV broadcast calls on followers to drive out rebels who now control most of the capital, which is returning in some areas to a semblance of normal life.

August 25, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan rebels search a building for snipers in Abu Salim, considered to be a Kadafi stronghold in Tripoli, the capital.
Libyan rebels search a building for snipers in Abu Salim, considered to… (Zohra Bensemra, Reuters )

Reporting from Tripoli — Fierce fighting gripped the Libyan capital Thursday as rebel forces laid siege to a loyalist stronghold and pressed the search for Moammar Kadafi — who sent a message from hiding that urged supporters to march on Tripoli and "purify" the capital of insurgents.

Rebels clashed ferociously with pro-Kadafi forces in the impoverished neighborhood of Abu Salim, a southwestern district of the city that is viewed a stronghold of support for Libya's longtime ruler.

Rebels armed with assault rifles and large-caliber machine guns mounted on pickup trucks opened fire on apartment blocks where gunmen loyal to Kadafi were holed up, mounting a last stand against the rebel advance.

Photos: Libya's turmoil

Photos: The Libyan conflict

Rebels said they control much of the city, but Abu Salim has been a center of resistance to the insurgent onslaught that began four days ago and that is now poised to end more than four decades of Kadafi rule.

Many residents of Abu Salim are said to be members of the Wurfalla tribe, which threw in its lot with Kadafi in exchange for perks and privileges. Pro-rebel Tripoli residents cheered the insurgents as they headed back toward the city center after the heavy fighting.

Kadafi remains in hiding and defiant; the rebels have placed a $2-million bounty on his head.

Meanwhile, U.S. and British authorities gave what appeared to be differing versions of how much the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is actively engaged in the hunt for Kadafi. The issue is a sensitive one because NATO's legal role in the conflict is to protect civilians from Libyan forces, not to target Kadafi.

Marine Col. David Lapan denied that the U.S. is involved in the search for Kadafi. Rather, Lapan said, the military is conducting aerial surveillance of Libya in support of NATO's mission to protect civilians.

However, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said on Thursday that NATO intelligence and reconnaissance assets are being used to try to find Kadafi.

As rebels attempt to consolidate control in Tripoli, the insurgents are also looking to subdue several loyalist enclaves elsewhere — including Kadafi's hometown, Sirte, about 250 miles from Tripoli. Members of Kadafi's tribe are expected to resist any rebel offensive, said insurgent leaders, who added that they hope a peaceful surrender of the city could be worked out in Sirte and other cities where Kadafi still has backers.

The much-anticipated rebel push into the loyalist bastion of Abu Salim began about 3:30 p.m. with columns of rebel pickup trucks making their way into the heart of the district. Rebels met fierce resistance and responded in force, setting many buildings ablaze and leaving dozens of Kadafi fighters dead, their bodies strewn across roadways and medians.

Mortars and rockets, presumably launched by Kadafi's forces from just outside the city's southwest perimeter, shook the earth, pushing rebels back before they regrouped and advanced.

In a fast-paced battle, rebel fighters stormed warrens of apartment blocks, dodging gunfire and occasionally shooting into the homes of suspected Kadafi loyalists.

Much of the neighborhood appeared to be in ruins or on fire, with huge clouds of black smoke billowing into the air. Medics supplied rebels and journalists with surgical masks to ward off the stench of burning plastic and decomposing bodies. Casualties on both sides appear to have been high, but there were no exact numbers available.

In a short audio broadcast on loyalist television channels Thursday, Kadafi called on his supporters to march on Tripoli and "purify" the capital of rebels, whom he denounced as "rats, crusaders and unbelievers," the usual phrases he employs to describe the insurgent forces.

"Street by street, alleyway by alleyway, house by house," Kadafi said. "The tribes that are outside of Tripoli must march on Tripoli. Each tribe must control its area and stop the enemy setting its foot on this pure land."

Kadafi's forces continued to hammer away with rockets at Tripoli's international airport, now under rebel control, and there were reports of continued fighting between his loyalists and rebel fighters west of the capital along the road to the Tunisian border.

A group of Italian journalists kidnapped by pro-Kadafi forces and held overnight were released Thursday after the loyalists decided to let them go.

Despite the occasional clashes, rebels appear to have bolstered their hold over much of the capital, especially in areas of the city long hostile to Kadafi. In Souk Joumeh, a district near central Tripoli, shops have begun to reopen.

Rebel fighters reduced the number of checkpoints on the streets the city. And volunteers with shovels and pickup trucks were cleaning up mounds of garbage that had accumulated during the days of unrest.

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