CAIRO — Even as images of gleeful rebels overrunning Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s main military compound saturated television screens Tuesday, questions still loomed over Gadhafi’s whereabouts, the status of pro-regime holdouts and NATO’s role in the effort to secure the country.
Early Wednesday, Gadhafi, speaking on a local Tripoli radio station, which was reported by Al-Orouba television and Reuters, said that his withdrawal from Bab al Aziziya, the dictator’s main compound and a key symbol of his power, was a “tactical move.” The compound had been leveled by 64 NATO air strikes, he said.
Gadhafi did not say where he was speaking from. He vowed “martyrdom” or victory in his fight against NATO.
Al-Arabiya television reported early Wednesday that forces loyal to Gadhafi were attacking the city of Ajelat, west of Tripoli, with missiles and tanks, and that dozens of missiles had hit Tripoli near Bab al Aziziya.
On Tuesday, in scenes reminiscent of the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, rebels looted Bab al Aziziya, clambering onto and giddily spray-painting iconic buildings and statues.
“Oh my God. I was in Gadhafi’s room. Oh my God. I’m gonna take this,” said a man as he donned a hat and gold chain that purportedly belonged to Gadhafi, in images captured by Britain’s Sky News.
The capital remained chaotic and violent, with rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces claiming control amid ongoing fears of reprisal attacks. Rebels appeared to be consolidating their grip, but the surprise appearance of Gadhafi’s son and one-time heir, Saif al Islam, outside a Tripoli hotel early Tuesday morning raised skepticism of the claims of the rebels, who had said they’d captured the son .
Libyan rebels told Al-Arabiya on Wednesday that more than 400 people were killed and at least 2,000 were injured in the fight for Tripoli.
Briefing reporters in Naples, Italy, NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said that the alliance was unaware of any rebel attacks on civilians, saying it had “no signs that anti-Gadhafi forces are operating in a manner not consistent with the mandate,” a reference to the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing NATO to protect Libyan civilians. But privately, NATO warned the rebel National Transitional Council that it would protect civilians from them if necessary, a NATO official told McClatchy, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing operation.
Relief groups reported that Tripoli residents were fleeing in greater numbers, and Amnesty International warned that prolonged fighting in the capital could create a humanitarian crisis. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator’s office in New York said that it had received reports that civilians had been forcibly displaced by fighting and prevented from moving from areas because of the hostilities.
The International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-affiliated group, was forced to delay docking a boat that it had chartered to evacuate 300 migrant workers stranded by the violence because of “poor security conditions at the port” in Tripoli.
“The risk to civilians increases with each day of violence in Tripoli, not just for people caught up in the fighting but also because conditions could become dire if residential areas are affected by the clashes, with food supplies, water and electricity all likely to be hit,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director.
Meanwhile, there were reports that pro-Gadhafi fighters had fled to Sirte, his hometown, but it wasn’t clear how he could have traveled there, given that all roads there are controlled by the rebels.
Mahmoud Shammam, a member of the rebel council, told CNN in a phone interview that rebels planned to go “peacefully” into Sirte, considered a bastion of Gadhafi support about 200 miles east of Tripoli. He confirmed that the town was among the pockets of territory still outside rebel control.
The rebel council pushed ahead with its plans to form a government, with rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani telling Al-Jazeera satellite network that it planned to move its headquarters to Tripoli from the eastern city of Benghazi, where it’s been based since the uprising began in February. Bani didn’t specify a timetable, however.
In Washington, State Department officials said that they were working with the United Nations to unfreeze up to $1.5 billion of U.S.-held assets for the new rebel government. Rebel officials said that they would hold a summit on Wednesday in Qatar, a key ally, to discuss international funding for Libya’s reconstruction.