TRIPOLI, Libya — Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed through the green gates of Moammar Gadhafi’s sprawling compound in Tripoli Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbing regime as they looted armories and scoured the grounds in vain for the missing dictator.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi’s power, marked a major success for the rebels. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for — and gunbattles flaring across the nervous city — the fighters know they cannot declare victory.
After five hours of intensive battles with Gadhafi loyalists outside, fought with mortars, heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns, the rebel force was inside. They beat and killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled away crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
“We’re looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now,” said Sohaib Nefati, a 29-year-old rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
One fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi’s home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many a fiery speech from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television at the beginning of the 6-month-old uprising, mocking his opponents.
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with an RPG slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is hiding underground inside the complex.
“Wasn’t he the one who called us rats. Now he is the rat underground,” he said. Asked how it felt to be standing inside Gadhafi’s compound, the fighter who came from to Tripoli two days ago from rebel-held western city of Misrata replied:
“It’s an explosion of joy inside. I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi’s house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something.”
Associated Press reporters inside the compound said parts of it appeared to still be under control of government forces who were firing toward the rebels, making for an atmosphere of joyful celebration mixed with tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles and the sound of crackling gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” and on loudspeakers they cried: “Hamdullah, hamdullah” or “Thank God.”
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters — one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot — were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi and kicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilant comrades danced and yelled around him. Fighters with long beards hugged each other and flashed the “V” for victory. Others carried injured rebels to ambulances.
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand new rifles still in their paper wrappings. Scuffles broke out, pushing and shoving to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine guns and handguns are stored. They came out drenched in sweat from the struggle.
Some used a rifle bayonet to crack open a green box that contained guns and pushed each other to lay their hands on the booty.
Ali Sameer, a 45-year-old Tripoli resident, stood nearby with three brand new rifles resting on his legs.
“They are for my friends. I don’t even know how to fight,” he said.
Abdul-Salamah Alawah, 29, who arrived on a boat from Misrata last night, loaded a clip into his handgun.
“This one is especially for Gadhafi,” he said.
The rebels carted out boxes of the weapons and ammunition, and some drove off with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on the back. One drove out with a golf cart, another walked out with a fan.
Others were busy ripping down posters of Gadhafi.
Ayman Coumi, a 21-year-old fighter inside, said there were five hours of heavy fighting before they broke through the gates.
“We entered from three sides,” he said.
Near Gadhafi’s old home with the statue outside, the body of a dead regime loyalist lay inside a large tent with glass windows shot out. It was partly covered by a blanket, his head sticking out with a gaping gunshot wound.
A second, much larger tent was on fire.
Gadhafi has a famous penchant for Bedouin-style tents, meant to symbolize his roots as a simple desert dweller. He received guests in the tents inside Bab al-Aziziya.
The storming of the compound was a new high for the rebels in what has been an emotional rollercoaster since they moved into Tripoli Sunday night. It began with euphoria and claims that they had taken over most of the city with little resistance. The first night they partied in Green Square, a major symbol of the regime where Gadhafi supporters had held almost nightly rallies throughout the uprising. And it seemed Gadhafi rule was teetering on the brink of collapse.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, there was a shocking setback. The rebels had claimed that they arrested Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam. It was confirmed by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which has charged him and his father with crimes against humanity.
But inexplicably, he showed up at the hotel where foreign journalists are staying under the close watch of regime minders in early morning hours of Tuesday. He giddily took reporters on eerie drive in the middle of the night to see hundreds of pro-regime gunmen around Bab al-Aziziya and at least a hundred more lined up outside where guns were being handed out to volunteers. The rebels gave no explanation of what had happened.
By Tuesday morning, it looked like the capital might descend into bloody urban warfare. There was sporadic gunfire in many parts. The rebels were in control of parts of the city, though it was not clear how extensive their control really was. Then the fighting took focus around Gadhafi’s compound.
The Libyan leader has not been heard from since Sunday, when rebels entered Tripoli and he delivered a series of angry and defiant audio messages on state television, apparently phoned in.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation who has known Gadhafi for year, said he spoke Tuesday by telephone with Gadhafi, who told him he was “alive and well and still in Tripoli.” The report couldn’t be independently confirmed.
In other parts of the capital, the rebels said they were also in control of the state television. They raised the flag on the top of the building. Rebels claimed they also control the airport.
Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the U.N. said he expects the entire country will be in rebel hands within 72 hours. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who with other diplomats has continued to work at the Libyan mission since disavowing Gadhafi in February, said Tuesday he expects Libya will be “totally liberated.”
In the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, the news of the Bab al-Aziziya storming was greeted with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers. Men drove around with their cars waving the rebel flags.
Wael Abu Khris, a 35-year-old shipping agent turned rebel fighter from Tripoli, was walking around Gadhafi’s compound after the battle, carrying his Kalashnikov.
“I feel great satisfaction. We are at last free of this dictator,” he said. “Libya is free at last. No more Gadhafi!”
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he said he has been married for six years, but only now does he want to have children.