Tripoli: Euphoric Libyan rebels took control of most of Tripoli in a lightning advance, celebrating the victory in Green Square, the symbolic heart of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Gaddafi’s defenders quickly melted away as his 42-year rule crumbled, but the leader’s whereabouts were unknown and pockets of resistance remained.
State TV broadcast Gaddafi’s bitter pleas for Libyans to defend his regime. Opposition fighters captured his son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, who along with his father faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. Another son was under house arrest.
“It’s over, frizz-head,” chanted hundreds of jubilant men and women massed in Green Square, using a mocking nickname of the curly-haired Gaddafi. The revelers fired shots in the air, clapped and waved the rebels’ tricolor flag. Some set fire to the green flag of Gaddafi’s regime and shot holes in a poster with the leader’s image.
The startling rebel breakthrough, after a long deadlock in Libya’s 6-month-old civil war, was the culmination of a closely coordinated plan by rebels, NATO and anti-Gaddafi residents inside Tripoli, rebel leaders said.
Rebel fighters from the west swept over 20 miles over a matter of hours yesterday, taking town after town and overwhelming a major military base as residents poured out to cheer them. At the same time, Tripoli residents secretly armed by rebels rose up.
When rebels reached the gates of Tripoli, the special battalion entrusted by Gaddafi with guarding the capital promptly surrendered. The reason: Its commander, whose brother had been executed by Gaddafi years ago, was secretly loyal to the rebellion, a senior rebel official Fathi al-Baja told The Associated Press.
Fathi al-Baja, the head of the rebels’ political committee, said the rebels’ National Transitional Council had been working on the offensive for the past three months, coordinating with NATO and rebels within Tripoli.
Sleeper cells were set up in the capital, armed by rebel smugglers. On Thursday and Friday, NATO intensified strikes inside the capital, and on Saturday, the sleeper cells began to rise up.
President Barack Obama said Libya is “slipping from the grasp of a tyrant” and urged Gaddafi to relinquish power to prevent more bloodshed.
“The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s vacationing. He promised to work closely with rebels.
By the early hours of the day, rebels controlled most of the capital. The seizure of Green Square held profound symbolic value — the plaza was scene of pro-Gaddafi rallies organised by the regime almost every night, and Gaddafi delivered speeches to his loyalists from the historic Red Fort that overlooks the square.
Rebels and Tripoli residents set up checkpoints around the city, though pockets of pro-Gaddafi fighters remained. In one area, AP reporters with the rebels were stopped and told to take a different route because of regime snipers nearby.
Abdel-Hakim Shugafa, a 26-year-old rebel fighter, said he was stunned by how easy it was. He saw only about 20 minutes of exchanges of fire as he and his fellow fighters pushed into the capital at nightfall.
In a series of angry and defiant audio messages broadcast on state television, Gaddafi called on his supporters to march in the streets of the capital and “purify it” of “the rats.” He was not shown in the messages.