Libyan rebels hunt Gadhafi, try to secure Tripoli

Posted Aug. 24, 2011, at 7:55 p.m.

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans hunting Moammar Gadhafi offered a $2 million bounty on the fallen dictator’s head and amnesty for anyone who kills or captures him as rebels battled Wednesday to clear the last pockets of resistance from the capital Tripoli.

While some die-hard loyalists kept up the fight to defend Gadhafi, his support was crumbling by the hour. His deputy intelligence chief defected, and even his foreign minister said his 42-year rule was over.

A defiant Gadhafi vowed from hiding to fight on “until victory or martyrdom,” in an audio message early Wednesday.

He may have little choice. Asked by the British broadcaster Channel 4 if a negotiated settlement or safe passage for Gadhafi from Libya was still possible, Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi said: “It looks like things have passed this kind of solution.”

Rebel leaders were beginning to set up a new government in the capital. Their interim administration, the National Transitional Council, has been based in the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell under rebel control shortly after the outbreak of widespread protests in February.

“Members of the council are now moving one by one from Benghazi to Tripoli,” said Mansour Seyf al-Nasr, the Libyan opposition’s new ambassador to France.

Rebel officials are eager to prove they can bring a stable political future to Libya, and that their movement is more than an often-fractious collection of tribes, ethnicities and semiautonomous militias. Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition government, outlined plans for a new constitution and elections and said officials were talking to the U.N. about sending up to 200 monitors t o help ensure security in Tripoli.

But the capital was far from pacified. A day after rebels captured Gadhafi’s vast Bab al-Aziziya compound, the symbolic center of his regime, loyalists were firing into the compound from an adjacent neighborhood where intense clashes broke out. Pro-regime snipers cut off the road to the airport. Four Italian journalists were kidnapped on the highway to Tripoli around the city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital.

Tripoli’s streets were largely empty of civilians. Rebels manned checkpoints every few hundred yards, but little could be seen beyond the debris of days of fighting and weeks of accumulated garbage.

Rebels found no sign of Gadhafi after storming his compound Tuesday, but rumors churned of his possible whereabouts. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was no evidence he had left Libya, but rebel officials acknowledged they could not find him.

“He might be in Sirte or any other place,” Jibril said in Paris, where he met French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sirte, a coastal city 250 miles from Tripoli, is Gadhafi’s hometown and a bastion of regime support.

Khaled al-Zintani, spokesman for the rebel military council for the western mountains, said it has set up an operations room with intelligence officers, military defectors and security officers who are trying to find Gadhafi, his family, regime members and his forces. They are collecting information on the location, size and direction of any convoys.

The operations center is in the western mountains, the staging base for the rebels who marched on Tripoli.

Mohammed al-Herizi, an opposition official, said a group of Tripoli businessmen has offered a $2 million reward for the arrest or killing of Gadhafi. The rebels themselves are offering amnesty for anyone who kills him or hands him over.

“The biggest prize is to offer amnesty, not to give money,” rebel spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said.

Gadhafi vowed not to surrender. Speaking to a local television channel, apparently by phone, he called on residents of the Libyan capital and loyal tribesmen to free Tripoli from the “devils and traitors” who have overrun it.

Al-Sadeq al-Kabir, a rebel spokesman, denied media reports that Gadhafi had offered a cease-fire.

The rebels have taken control of much of Libya with the help of a relentless NATO air campaign that included about 7,500 strike attacks against Gadhafi’s forces. His defenses around Tripoli melted away as the rebels rapidly advanced and entered the capital Sunday.

Jibril said a commission created with members from around Libya would write a new constitution, which would be put up for a referendum. He didn’t specify a timetable but said that once a constitution is adopted, elections for parliament would be held within the next four months, and its president would be Libya’s interim leader until a presidential election sometime later.

“The mission of protecting civilians is not over,” Jibril said. “The other bigger and more fierce battle has not started yet. It is the rebuilding of Libya.”

In the postwar period, a new army will be created, he said, and the National Transitional Council planned “to call on all those who took up arms to join either the new army or the new police force that we will constitute in coming days.”

The rebels said they also have an environment team that tries to detect bodies of combatants and clean the city of rotting animals.

Fighting continued, however, and not just in Tripoli. Jibril said pro-government forces were shelling a number of southern cities.

Residents of the port town of Zwara, about 70 miles west of the capital, said they had suffered through four days of shelling. All roads to the city had been cut off, and rebels said they were running low on supplies.

As they are routed elsewhere, Gadhafi’s forces “take their revenge by shelling our town,” Sefask al-Azaabi, a rebel, said by telephone. “We are appealing to the [rebel] military council to send us reinforcements or this town will be finished in no time.”

In Tripoli, rebel fighters were using Gadhafi’s captured compound as a staging area, loading huge trucks with ammunition and discussing deployments, but they had yet to control all of Bab al-Aziziya.

Pro-Gadhafi snipers repeatedly fired on the fighters from tall buildings in the Abu Salim neighborhood, a regime stronghold, rebel Mohammed Amin said.

He said the rebels had surrounded Abu Salim, home to the country’s most notorious prison and scene of a 1996 massacre of protesting political prisoners, but had been unable to push into it. But late Wednesday night, al-Kabir, the rebel spokesman, said rebels released thousands of inmates from Abu Salim, many of them political prisoners who had been held there for years.

Matthew VanDyke, a writer from Baltimore missing since March in Libya, was among those who escaped, his mother said. VanDyke called her and said he had been held in solitary confinement, but fellow prisoners helped him escape to a compound where he borrowed a phone. He had traveled to Libya to write about the uprising against Gadhafi.

The rebels claim they control the Tripoli airport but were still clashing with Gadhafi forces around it. Associated Press reporters said the road leading to the airport was closed because of heavy fire by pro-regime snipers.

Rebels said pro-Gadhafi forces to the south and northeast were firing rockets and shelling rebel positions inside the airport and had set a plane on fire.

Inside Gadhafi’s compound, two young rebel fighters searched through a heap of pill packages in a building they said had served as a pharmacy. A broken TV, its screen shattered, lay on the ground in the courtyard. A dozen young fighters posed for pictures next to a gold-colored statue of a clenched fist squeezing a plane — a memorial to the 1986 U.S. airstrikes on the compound in retaliation for a bombing at a German disco frequented by U.S. servicemen.

The rebels also targeted other symbols of the regime, including the homes of some of Gadhafi’s children.

About 200 people ransacked the beachfront villa of Gadhafi’s son Saadi, driving off with four of his cars — a Lamborghini, a BMW, an Audi and a Toyota station wagon, said Seif Allah, a rebel fighter who joined in the looting, taking a bottle of gin and a pair of Diesel jeans.

After a five-hour gunbattle with guards, rebels also ransacked the mansion of Gadhafi’s daughter Aisha.

Clothes and DVDs were strewn on the floor of the master bedroom, including a DVD about getting in shape after childbirth. In a sitting area, a gold-colored statue of a mermaid — a mermaid with Aisha’s face — framed a sofa.

At the once-luxurious Rixos Hotel near Abu Salim and Bab al-Aziziya, dozens of foreign journalists were freed after being held captive for days by pro-government gunmen.

The hotel was where rotating tours of journalists had lived for the past six months, closely watched by government minders and taken on approved tours. But it became a de facto prison after the rebels swept into the city because a team of gunmen refused to let the journalists leave.

Heavy gunbattles had raged all around the hotel since Sunday, and a gunman even ran through the lobby at one point. Near-constant power outages left reporters without air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat, and in their final days at the Rixos they had to scrounge the hotel to find food and water.

As the rebels drew closer, most of the guards left, leaving just a pair of increasingly nervous gunmen. The journalists were suddenly freed Wednesday after the International Committee of the Red Cross stepped in to negotiate their release.

 

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