x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebels take Qaddafi compound

Neither the Libyan leader nor any of his family were inside the heavily fortified Bab Al Azizya HQ, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

Libyan rebels raised their flag over Col Muammar Qaddafi's military compound in Tripoli yesterday after capturing it in a fierce gun battle with regime troops.

Neither the Libyan leader nor any of his family were inside the heavily fortified Bab Al Azizya HQ, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

The rebel fighters tried to pull down a statue of a clenched fist crushing a US fighter jet, erected by the Libyan leader in defiance after a 1986 US airstrike. In the end they settled for draping their flag over the defining symbol of Col Qaddafi's 42-year rule.

The complex, Col Qaddafi's former residence, has been heavily damaged by Nato airstrikes since the civil war began.

"We have won the battle," Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the insurgents' Tripoli commander said from inside the compound. "The military battle is over now."

Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, 19, walked down one of the main roads of the compound with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other. The teenager, from Misurata, said he felt "an explosion of joy inside".

"I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Qaddafi's house," he said. "Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."

A rebel official in Misurata said: "At the same house used by Qaddafi before to describe the Libyan people as rats, today the independence flag is flying on its roof."

Wael Abu Khris, 35, a shipping agent turned rebel fighter from Tripoli, said after the battle: "I feel great satisfaction. We are at least free of this dictator. Libya is free at last. No more Qaddafi. It is time for a new Libya that will shine and go forth."

Libya's former deputy ambassador to the UN said yesterday he expected that the entire country would be in rebel hands within 72 hours.

Ibrahim Dabbashi said a new rebel government would depend on the international community for help in rebuilding the country and constructing new democratic institutions.

The European Union said it was ready to open a diplomatic mission in Tripoli as soon as it deems it safe to do so. Turkey's foreign minister said western leaders would take up the issue of the possible release of frozen Libyan assets at a meeting this week in Istanbul.

Ahmet Davutoglu said the money should be released rapidly for "the service of the Libyan people" to help the country to rebuild in the post-Qaddafi era.

The minister was in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi for talks with the head of the rebel National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, before a meeting in Istanbul on Thursday between diplomats from the "contact group" of nations involved in efforts to stabilise Libya.

In Paris, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy said he had agreed with his US counterpart Barack Obama to continue military action against Col Qaddafi until he lays down his weapons.

The Elysee Palace said the two leaders had held telephone talks during which they "agreed to pursue their military effort in support of the legitimate Libyan authorities for as long as Qaddafi and his clan have not put down their arms".

The battle for Bab Al Azizya, in which mortars, heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns were used, came hours after Col Qaddafi's son and heir apparent, Saif Al Islam, turned up free to rally supporters and refute rebel claims he had been captured.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation who has known Col Qaddafi for years, said he spoke to the Libyan leader yesterday by telephone and he is still in Tripoli.

Col Qaddafi's former right-hand man Abdel Salam Jalloud said he thought the Libyan leader was moving around the outskirts of Tripoli, taking shelter at private homes, small hotels and mosques. Mr Jalloud defected this month.

Nato warned the situation in Tripoli remains very dangerous and promised the alliance will continue bombing forces loyal to the 69-year-old Libyan leader if they keep fighting.

"Snipers, shelling, missiles could do much damage, but they can't change the course of history or the outcome of this campaign," spokesman Col Roland Lavoie told a news conference in Naples. He said Nato had to stay vigilant because of the fluidity of the situation on the ground.

"Most notably, Tripoli is still the site of numerous clashes between pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces, and the tension is far from being over. The situation in Tripoli is indeed very, very dynamic and complex, even today, and we are closely monitoring developments hour after hour," he said.

On the eastern front, Libyan rebels yesterday overran the eastern oil hub of Ras Lanuf on the road to Col Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte. "We are now in Ras Lanuf," their military spokesman Col Ahmed Omar Bani said. He said he hoped insurgents would soon reach Bin Jawad, a hamlet just east of Sirte and almost halfway between the rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misurata.

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence-France-Presse and Reuters