Gadhafi loyalists showing resilience in Tripoli
Forces loyal to fugitive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi struck back Monday against the rebel fighters who had swept euphorically into the capital the previous night, forcing them to retreat from several strategic locations and tempering hopes that the battle for Tripoli was all but over.
By Thomas Erdbrink and Liz Sly
The Washington Post
TRIPOLI, Libya — Forces loyal to fugitive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi struck back Monday against the rebel fighters who had swept euphorically into the capital the previous night, forcing them to retreat from several strategic locations and tempering hopes that the battle for Tripoli was all but over.
The dramatic appearance Monday night of Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam at the Rixos hotel, where the Tripoli-based press corps remains trapped, contradicted the rebels’ assertion that they had captured him and cast into doubt their claim of controlling 80 percent of the capital.
His appearance raised significant questions about the credibility of rebel leaders.
It was not clear whether al-Islam, long believed to be Gadhafi’s heir apparent, had been in rebel custody and escaped, or never was held at all. Another Gadhafi son, Muhammed, escaped from house arrest Monday, say corporate media sources.
Video footage recorded by the Reuters news agency showed al-Islam being greeted by supporters. “To hell with the ICC,” he said, a reference to charges by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which in June issued arrest warrants for him and his father as well as Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, accusing them of crimes against humanity. “We assure the people that things are fine in Libya.”
The BBC and CNN quoted al-Islam as telling reporters that government forces had lured the rebels into a trap and “broken the back” of the opposition army and that pro-Gadhafi forces are back in control of the city. He said his father remained in Tripoli.
Rebels said they arrested a third son of Gadhafi’s, Saadi, who commanded an army unit.
And Al-Jazeera quoted unidentified sources as saying the body of a fourth son, Khamis, who was in charge of the elite 32nd Brigade, may have been recovered along with that of Senussi, the intelligence chief.
The confusion made the assertion impossible to confirm, but with gunfire and explosions echoing ominously through the streets and Gadhafi’s whereabouts still unknown, it was clear that the capital was far from secure.
President Obama and other world leaders declared an end to Gadhafi’s nearly 42-year rule and hailed the courage of the Libyan people.
The leaders said they were looking forward to cooperating with a new Libyan government, which presumably would be led by the opposition’s Transitional National Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Obama, however, cautioned “the situation is still very fluid.”
“There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat,” he said, speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing. But, addressing his remarks to the Libyan people, he said: “The Libya that you deserve is within your reach.”
How close was in question, however, as the uncertainty on Tripoli’s streets appeared only to mount as the day wore on. With Gadhafi apparently on the run, it was clear that the epic, often-eccentric rule of the man who once proclaimed himself “king of Africa” had effectively come to a close.
Yet, the mystery surrounding his whereabouts and the indications that his loyalists still were capable of mounting resistance in the capital raised echoes of Baghdad in April 2003, when Saddam Hussein slipped away from advancing U.S. troops and later served as a lightning rod for disgruntled regime loyalists, who formed the core of an insurgency that persists to this day.
Rebels in Tripoli said they were confident Gadhafi was still in the capital, and they erected checkpoints around the city to ensure he did not slip away. “We are winning. It is safe,” rebel fighter Abdel Azouz said as the sound of explosions and gunfire echoed down the telephone line. “There’s just a few dirty rats here and there who don’t want to give up.”
Azouz acknowledged, however, that Gadhafi loyalists were in firm control of the fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound on the southern edge of Tripoli, where Gadhafi purportedly lived. NATO has targeted the compound so frequently that few Libyans believe he has been staying there recently, but the rebels suspect he may be hiding in a house in the area.
The compound is about one mile from the Rixos hotel, where journalists effectively are being held hostage by pro-Gadhafi gunmen in the lobby who are refusing to let them leave.
Speaking on a borrowed telephone because the batteries on his phone had run out, CNN correspondent Matthew Chance said the hotel was without electricity and that the journalists had gathered for safety in an inside room.
“This could go badly wrong,” he told the network. “It’s becoming a lot more ugly here.”
It is also possible that Gadhafi is not in Tripoli but had taken refuge perhaps weeks ago in the southern city of Sabha or the central coastal town of Sirte, his hometown and most staunchly loyal stronghold. He has not been seen in public since June, though he has delivered numerous audio statements, most recently as the rebels swept into Tripoli late Sunday.
With the focus now on the capital, it was unclear when or whether the rebels would be able to dislodge Gadhafi’s supporters from Sirte, a heavily guarded garrison town that lies on the coastal highway between the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi and Tripoli, effectively isolating the rebel government from the country’s real capital.
Speaking in Benghazi, council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil acknowledged Sirte was going to be a tougher challenge than even Tripoli.
He said he was hoping the town’s residents would rise up, as many in Tripoli did, something that seems unlikely given that most of the area’s residents are members of Gadhafi’s tribe.
“Libyans must know and must realize that the coming period will not be a bed of roses,” Abdul Jalil said, adding that the principles of “safety, security, peace and prosperity” will be “achieved through reconciliation, forbearance and tolerance.”
The Transitional National Council is planning to head to Tripoli soon, Abdul Jalil said, but he offered no specifics.
The council leader also hinted at the uncertainty that surrounds his future role, given that most of the rebels who have surged into the capital come from western Libya and do not answer to the rebel command in the distant east.
“My role after the fall of Gadhafi will continue, unless I lose control,” Abdul Jalil said.
But as night fell on Tripoli, it was unclear whether anyone could be said to be in control. Many of the rebel fighters who had surged triumphantly into the capital Sunday night retreated to Zawiya, the town from which they had begun their advance, seemingly spooked by the prevalence of loyalist snipers on rooftops.
Several firefights erupted near Green Square, the symbolic heart of the city where revelers had gathered Sunday night but which was largely deserted Monday.
And there were other indications that the battle elsewhere still has not run its course. A rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata said a Scud missile, apparently fired from Sirte, had exploded in the sea, causing no casualties but serving as a reminder that Gadhafi’s forces still have considerable weaponry at their disposal.
It was the third Scud to hit Misrata in a week, said the spokesman, Mohammed Ali.
There were also reports late Monday that Gadhafi loyalists had launched a fierce counteroffensive against rebels who had seized control of the western coastal town of Zuwarah, near the border with Tunisia.
Washington Post reporters Craig Whitlock, Joby Warrick and Leila Fadel contributed to this report. Information from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.