Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya Government Defends Capital Against NATO-backed Rebels

Libya Government Defends Capital Against NATO-backed Rebels


Jubilation turned to uncertain disquiet late Monday in Libya's capital, with persistent reports of random shootings in the capital, with some pockets of outright fighting.

Jeff Grocott has the latest on The News Hub

TRIPOLI, Libya—A nervous limbo, punctuated by gunfire, took hold of Libya's capital Monday, one day after opponents of Col. Moammar Gadhafi rolled triumphantly into the central square here—damping hopes by rebels and their international allies that the strongman's supporters would melt away.

Machine-gun and antiaircraft fire could be heard throughout the day in Tripoli, as residents said loyalist gunmen had taken up positions in several neighborhoods. Rebels who attempted to turn an old police academy into their military headquarters quickly came under heavy fire, sending a stream of casualties to a makeshift clinic.

Green Square, where rebel troops had celebrated Sunday after marching largely unopposed into Col. Gadhafi's stronghold capital, appeared to be a no man's land. Roads leading to the square were made impassable by what locals said were loyalist snipers.

Amid the uncertainty, one of Col. Gadhafi's sons, thought to have been captured by the rebels a day earlier, showed up at a Tripoli hotel and invited foreign journalists on a tour of the city.

he scenes in Tripoli bucked the day's widening international sentiment that forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled the oil-rich Mediterranean country for nearly 42 years, had been all but neutralized. Instead, the leader remained unaccounted for as fighting continued. The unease suggested instead that the regime's end, while broadly expected, may bring more bloodshed, this time in a densely populated urban theater.

Late Monday, the Al Arabiya network, citing rebels, reported bombings by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces near Col. Gadhafi's compound.

Earlier Monday, a rebel spokesman had said anti-Gadhafi forces controlled 95% of the capital. U.S. President Barack Obama said in an address from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., that while events in Libya remained fluid, the Gadhafi regime was coming to an end. Oil companies began gearing up to resume operations in the country.

Libya's rebel government-in-waiting declared itself the country's ruling power, and announced the capture of several members of Col. Gadhafi's family, but by Tuesday morning it remained unclear how many were still in custody.

Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, seen as a possible successor to Col. Gadhafi, had been captured and was in rebel hands, said Dia Alhutmany, a spokesman for the rebel-aligned Libyan Mission to the United Nations in New York.

But he denied he was ever detained. "They stopped our media broadcast and waged a media and electronic war against us," Saif el-Islam told reporters at a press conference he held in the capital.

"My father is safe and in Tripoli… They (rebels) said they control Libya, they can't. Tripoli is under our control," Seif el-Islam said.

"They (rebels), tried to infiltrate through the sea... But Libyan people stood up and broke the rebels' back and have destroyed them," he said.

"I will take you (the press) on a tour in Tripoli in the most heated areas, and you will see that all is secure, the world will know it's secure," he added before inviting the press to follow him on a tour to several places where rebels claimed they had controlled. Col. Gadhafi's son later mocked rebels' reports that they'd hand him over to the International Criminal Court.

The convoy visited armed Gadhafi supporters at several locations in the capital and ended outside Col. Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound where dozens of loyalists had gathered, AP reported.

The mood on Tripoli's streets turned from jubilation to uncertain disquiet in many neighborhoods Monday, a day after Libyan rebels seized control over most of Libya's capital. Bill Spindle has the latest from the Middle East on Lunch Break.

He told reporters that he had never been in the rebels' custody, a claim that had also been made by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. "The ICC can go to hell," Seif el-Islam said. "We are going to break the backbone of the rebels."

Mr. Alhutmany said another Gadhafi son, Mohammed, had been captured, but may have escaped rebel custody. He wasn't able to confirm reports of the capture of a third son, Saadi, and added that another son, Mutassim, may have escaped to the city of Sabha in the south.

"The only victory will be when Gadhafi is captured," Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council, told reporters in Benghazi.

"This is a shrewd man, unpredictable," added Ali Suleiman Aujali, Libya's former ambassador to the U.S. who now represents the rebel council in Washington. "We have to get him for the people to feel safe."

French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others called on Col. Gadhafi's forces to cease violence immediately.

Advancing rebels said they haven't attempted to enter or assert authority in several neighborhoods, including the historically pro-Gadhafi areas of Abu Salim and Hadba. Some of the fighters admitted they had little visibility on some areas of the city. "It's pretty much a black spot right now," said Mohamed Abu Sbeaa, a 21-year-old rebel fighter.

Libyan opposition efforts to unseat Col. Gadhafi has resulted, over the past six months, in the vast majority of the country falling under rebel control. After Gadhafi opponents living in the capital rose up Saturday and NATO air strikes destroyed defenses on the city's western edge, rebels stormed in on Sunday.

Facing little resistance, they claimed Green Square with jubilant celebrations before midnight. On Monday, Libya's two state-run television stations went dark.

But on Monday, Fighting flared around Col. Gadhafi's Bab al-Azzizziya compound in central Tripoli, where loyalist tanks emerged to attack rebels trying to storm the compound, according to rebels in the city.

Rebels appear to have voluntarily pulled back from much of the territory they took almost as soon as they took it. The invading forces appeared to only control a slice of land leading from the western edge to near the city center. Rebels from inside the capital claimed to control a handful of other neighborhoods but these were difficult to reach as roads through the capital remained insecure.

With communication poor between various rebel units and neighborhood groups, it was difficult to know with certainty the status of many neighborhoods.

Rebels' fragile hold over the city was evident as columns of rebel fighters made their way back into the city again Monday morning. One column advanced cautiously from the west along the city's coast road, pausing every few blocks amid reports of snipers and occasional bursts of gunfire targeting the convoy.

To the advancing rebels, every local appeared to be a potential threat, raising the possibility of future tensions between rebel forces and locals. A resident of an apartment block along the seaside thoroughfare who poked his head out onto a balcony was greeted by angry shouts from rebel fighters, warning him to go back inside lest he be mistaken for a sniper.

A car driving toward the rebel column was stopped amid yells and wagging rebel gun barrels. The driver said he had friends in Misrata, the rebel-dominated city east of Tripoli, and shouted a string of rebel slogans. The fighters waved him on.

Along a side street, a dead soldier lay in the gutter at the end of a 200-yard trail of bloody footprints. Rebels identified him, by his olive-colored uniform, as a Gadhafi loyalist.

Advancing rebels took over the old police academy shortly after noon, proclaiming it the headquarters of the Tripoli Division of five rebel brigades, which is taking the lead in efforts to secure the city. Within 90 minutes, the base came under attack in a hit-and-run strike that wounded scores of rebels.

The wounded were brought to a makeshift clinic set up in a private home. Because pro-Gadhafi agents have seized wounded rebels from their hospital beds, rebels are treated in clandestine, ill-equipped clinics staffed by medical students.

—Nathan Hodge contributed to this article.
Write to Charles Levinson at charles.levinson@wsj.com

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