Libyan rebels stormed the main Tripoli stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi on Tuesday and claimed to have captured it after fighting pitched battles with loyalist forces in various parts of the capital.The assault, which ended with rebels celebrating victory in the heart of the Libyan leader’s Bab al-Aziziya compound, came hours after Gaddafi’s son emerged publicly to exhort supporters and taunt the rebels who pushed into the city over the weekend.
For hours earlier, Gaddafi’s forces and rebel fighters had battled with heavy machine guns, antiaircraft weapons and mortars around the Bab al-Aziziya compound, and other clashes were reported near the airport, which was seized by rebels on Monday.
Hundreds of rebel fighters later broke into the compound, pouring inside and firing their weapons into the air in celebration, news agencies reported. Pro-Gaddafi forces tried to defend the heavily fortified complex but had to end their resistance, Reuters said. Gunfire could still be heard from the area, however, as thick black smoke billowed into the sky.
The al-Jazeera Arabic satellite network reported that NATO warplanes bombed the Bab al-Aziziya compound Tuesday in the latest of a series of airstrikes since March that have left the Gaddafi stronghold heavily damaged.
Gunfire could also be heard near the Rixos hotel, where foreign journalists stay and where Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, appeared early Tuesday to refute rebel assertions that he had been captured. He also claimed that loyalist forces “are winning” the battle for Tripoli, the potentially decisive fight of the six-month-old rebellion.
Saif al-Islam spoke after loyalist attacks forced rebels to retreat from several strategic locations Monday. His appearance tempered the rebels’ earlier hopes that the battle for Tripoli was all but over.
In Benghazi, the rebel capital in eastern Libya, a spokesman for the rebel forces said Gaddafi loyalists withdrew from the coastal town of Ras Lanouf on Tuesday afternoon as rebels from the east advanced toward Bin Jawwad for the first time in months.
Col. Ahmed Bani said the loyalist forces retreated to Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town and a bastion of his tribal supporters. Sirte lies on the coastal highway between Benghazi and Tripoli, effectively cutting off the east from western Libya.
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