x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebels overrun Qaddafi's Tripoli compound

Still no sign of the Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi since fighters entered the capital on Sunday.

TRIPOLI // Rebel fighters captured Moammar Qaddafi's heavily defended Bab al Aziziya compound and headquarters in Tripoli on Tuesday after a day of heavy fighting, an AFP correspondent witnessed. There was no immediate word on Qaddafi's whereabouts after the insurgents breached the defences as part of a massive assault that began in the morning.

Libyan rebels had launched a massive offensive on leader Moamer Qaddafi's sprawling Bab al Azizya compound in Tripoli on Tuesday, as the strongman's son refuted reports of his own arrest.

The fighting was the most intense in the city since rebels fighters surged into the capital three days ago in a final drive to topple 69-year-old Qaddafi, who has ruled the oil-rich nation with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The sky was filled with billowing smoke and the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the roar of NATO jets that have been overflying the city intensively but without confirmation of any strikes.

Even two kilometres (about one mile) from the fighting, the almost constant whistle of bullets could be heard from the rooftops, as the the cry of "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) blaring out from the city's mosques.

After a brief lull, the fighting intensified mid-afternoon, an AFP reporter said.

Rebel leaders said fighters from their western bastion of Misrata, renowned for their prowess after breaking a months-long siege of the port city by Qaddafi's forces, had joined Tripoli rebels in the assault, which also saw the deployment of tanks captured from loyalist forces.

They added, in a statement issued in Benghazi, that the insurgents had overrun the Tripoli base earlier Tuesday of the feared Khamis Brigade, named after and commanded by Qaddafi's youngest son Khamis.

Since Sunday, exultant rebel fighters have streamed across the capital of the oil-rich North African state, seizing control of state television and Tripoli's seaside Green Square.

But the euphoria of their lightning entry into the heart of the capital, which sparked celebrations and predictions that Qaddafi's fall was imminent, has given way to caution and warnings that the strongman is far from finished.

US President Barack Obama called for "an inclusive transition" in Libya, demanding that Qaddafi "explicitly" give up power and cautioned the rebels that their struggles were "not over yet."

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet, who declared on Monday that "the regime has fallen, the turnaround is total", said on Tuesday: "In Libya the situation is not totally at an end, far from it."

The opposition's credibility took a knock when its claims that Qaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, had been arrested were refuted by the man himself, who appeared before cheering armed loyalists outside Bab al-Azizya early Tuesday.

"Tripoli is under our control. Everyone should rest assured. All is well in Tripoli," Seif told journalists at the compound, smiling broadly and flashing the V-for-victory sign.

"I am here to refute the lies," the 39-year-old said about reports of his arrest, and accused the West of waging a "technological and media war to cause chaos and terror in Libya."

Seif, like his father, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. He said Qaddafi and his entire family were still in Tripoli, denying rumours he had fled.

His comments were backed up by the Russian head of world chess who said on Tuesday Qaddafi had told him in a telephone call that he was in Tripoli and did not intend to leave the country.

"I am alive and healthy. I am in Tripoli and do not intend to leave Libya. Do not believe the lying reports by Western television companies," Kirsan Ilyumzhinov quoted Qaddafi as saying in the conversation, the Interfax news agency reported. Ilyumzhinov had met Qaddafi in Tripoli in June.

The opposition suffered another setback when Mohammed Qaddafi, the leader's eldest son, escaped from house arrest.

When contacted by AFP, several high level political leaders of the rebellion, including National Transitional Council (NTC) head Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who first announced an arrest of Seif, refused to comment.

However, one rebel said "we could have imprisoned them, but we wanted to treat them well," suggesting that the condition under which they had been held may have facilitated their escape.

Outside the capital, the rebels said they had cut off a column of Qaddafi troops attempting to march on Tripoli from the city of Sirte, the leader's hometown.

In the east, rebels pushed through the front at Brega on Tuesday and were advancing on the oil hub town of Ras Lanuf on the road to Sirte, spokesman Mohammed Zawiwa said.

"Our fighters have advanced by more than 40 kilometres (25 miles) beyond Brega. We have gone past Bishr and tonight we should be in Ras Lanuf," which is on the way to Sirte, Zawiwa told AFP.

NATO insisted Tuesday that Qaddafi's time is up but stressed that he was not being personally targeted by the Western military alliance.

"The end is near," chief NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in Brussels.

"A brief appearance in the dead of night doesn't indicate to me someone who is in control of a capital," she said, referring to Seif. "It shows the remnants of the regime are on the run."

Operation Unified Protector spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie Lavoie told the press conference via video-link from the Libyan mission's Naples headquarters, that Qaddafi himself is "not a target" for NATO.

"NATO does not target individuals," he said.