CAIRO — President Barack Obama called Monday for a “peaceful, inclusive and just” transition in Libya, telling rebels that “the Libya that you deserve is within your reach” as they battled to clear Moammar Gadhafi’s supporters from Tripoli.
Obama said that “For over four decades, the Libyan people had lived under the rule of a tyrant who denied them their most basic human rights. Now the celebrations that we’ve seen in the streets of Libya show that the pursuit of human dignity is far stronger than any dictator.”
While fierce fighting continued in some areas of the country, Obama warned that the situation “is still very fluid.” The six-month fight, aided by a NATO-led coalition, turned in favor of the rebels only in the past two weeks, and took far longer than the Arab Spring revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
Residents of Tripoli said there were clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi holdouts at the longtime ruler’s Bab al-Azizya compound. But the rest of the capital appeared to be firmly in opposition hands as rebels and volunteers set up checkpoints, deployed civilian patrols and secured buildings.
“The revolutionaries are very organized and are taking full control of the capital,” said a resident of central Tripoli named Reda, who was too afraid of reprisals by Gadhafi to give his full name.
In a sign that some Gadhafi supporters could continue fighting, residents of Zuwara, a town west of Tripoli and about 30 miles from the Tunisian border, reported heavy shelling from three nearby towns believed to be loyal to the longtime ruler.
Gadhafi remained at large, a status that “almost doesn’t matter,” said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
“He has become, for all intents and purposes, part of Libya’s past, and now people need to look to build Libya’s better future,” Feltman said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Anees al Fonas, a member of the rebel media council from Zuwara who spoke by phone from Tunisia, said rockets and mortars had been fired “for the last 24 hours, nonstop,” from the nearby towns of Zolton, Riqdalin and Al Jamil. A civilian was killed Monday when a rocket landed on the roof of his house, and four others were injured, Fonas said.
A small group of rebels was on the outskirts of Zuwara, but reinforcements from rebel-held Sabrata, about 25 miles to the east, could not arrive because Gadhafi forces reportedly were stationed near a road connecting the two.
“We want to send this message to NATO and to all people to help us now,” Fonas said.
In Tripoli, there remained an air of apprehension as Gadhafi’s four-decade stranglehold on the oil-rich North African nation appeared to be over. An employee answering the phones in Tripoli at the Veba Oil Co., a subsidiary of the National Oil Co. of Libya, said few people were at work Monday.
“Everybody stays in their homes. Nobody goes out,” said the man, who would not disclose his name for fear of retribution. “I hope it is good … that things become better than before. I am a normal person, what I see in the street is that nobody can understand this. We hope it becomes like before.”
The oil company employee said he didn’t know the condition of export facilities or production and said those are questions Libyans are asking, too. But stable Internet and cellular telephone networks returned to the city Monday, said one resident of eastern Tripoli, Adel, who also declined to give his last name because of safety concerns.
“The families in Tripoli are celebrating the arrival of the rebels — they have been terrorized and suppressed for months,” he said. “Anyone who talked was arrested by the Gadhafi army and would disappear. We are finally breathing our freedom, God help us continue and reach our victory.”
From Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where he was on vacation, Obama urged rebel forces to respect law and human rights, a call echoed by the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was Gadhafi’s justice minister before defecting early in the uprising.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday to Abdel-Jalil about what the international community can do to assist Libyans in protecting civilians as well as providing key services, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. Clinton and Abdel-Jalil also spoke about the rebel council’s efforts to assemble an inclusive government that will “foster peaceful reconciliation among all of Libya’s people,” Nuland said.
Abdel-Jalil, who’s expected to become Libya’s leader until elections are held, said he hoped that Gadhafi would be captured alive and given a fair trial. In a news conference in Benghazi, the rebels’ eastern capital, he said even Libyans who had previously withheld their support for the uprising would be welcomed as partners.
He urged holdouts to join the rebels’ side, saying it was “better late than never.” He also warned rebels against carrying out revenge attacks and said he would resign if the opposition didn’t follow the rule of law as they attempt to rebuild Libya.
“We are on the threshold of a new stage where we’ll work to establish the principles of the revolution: freedom, democracy, justice, equality and transparency,” he said.
American diplomats in Libya have apparently looked favorably on Abdel-Jalil for years. Officials at Human Rights Watch told U.S. Embassy staff privately that he was “a proponent of the rule of law,” according to a December 2009 cable from U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz that was obtained by WikiLeaks.
Human Rights Watch officials see Abdel-Jalil “as a proud nationalist who believes in the principles of justice and the primacy of law and chalks up Libya’s fitful march towards human rights legitimacy as ‘birthing pains’ of a nation that is just reentering international society,” the cable reported.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, who was reported arrested by rebels, is free, The Associated Press reported Monday night. Al-Islam turned up early Tuesday morning at the hotel where foreign journalists stay in Tripoli, then took reporters in his convoy on a drive through the city. Associated Press reporters were among the journalists who saw him.
All three of Gadhafi’s sons had been reported arrested over the weekend.