Rebel fighters danced under fireworks in the heart of Tripoli as they celebrated a stunning advance into the capital, meeting weak resistance from forces loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and claiming that his regime is finished.
Gunfire and explosions continued into the early hours of Monday in several neighbourhoods of the city, however, and state television continued to broadcast messages from Col. Gadhafi calling for tribesmen to rise against the rebels.
The dictator’s voice on a crackling phone line, interrupted by technical problems as he spoke from an unknown location, made him sound hurt and confused about why his followers failed to defend his regime.
“How can you allow Tripoli to be burned, these towers we built with our own sweat?” Col. Gadhafi said.
A flurry of unconfirmed reports emerged from the confused urban war, fought in the darkness, but the sudden collapse of Col. Gadhafi’s defences appeared to vindicate NATO's strategy of supporting the rebels from air and sea, without putting regular forces on the ground.
Rebels claimed that a contingent of Col. Gadhafi’s elite guards had surrendered, and that three of his sons – Saif Al-Islam, Saadi and Mohammed – had been arrested. The International Criminal Court confirmed Saif’s capture; the ICC had earlier issued a warrant for his arrest to face charges of crimes against humanity. He has been among the most important faces of the regime, second only to Col. Gadhafi himself.
The rebels also claimed they had executed a commando-style sea raid, with hundreds of gunmen boarding vessels that took them from the coastal city of Misrata, almost 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, skirting through the NATO-patrolled waters of the Mediterranean to avoid pro-Gadhafi strongholds such as Al-Khoms. That manoeuvre allowed the rebels to bypass swathes of loyalist territory that had blocked their route to Tripoli for months, putting them ashore in zodiac landing craft near the eastern gates of the capital.
Simultaneously, in a co-ordinated assault, rebels charged from the freshly re-captured city of Zawiyah, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, and drove through the so-called “ring of steel,” a series of defensive positions previously manned by some of Col. Gadhafi’s best troops.
The soldiers of the feared 32nd Brigade, commanded by Col. Gadhafi’s son Khamis, apparently abandoned their headquarters in a hurry before the main rebel force arrived; rebels looted ammunition and set free hundreds of prisoners. Reports suggested that the 32nd Brigade outpost had been struck by NATO bombs, which continued clearing the way for rebels as they swept into Tripoli.
With rebels pushing into the city from east and west, in the hazy light at the precise moment of sunset, clerics took to their mosque loudspeakers and offered a variation on the usual call to prayer that comes at the end of daily fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Besides asking for God’s mercy, the mullahs also called for freedom.
Rebel sources have been claiming for weeks that Tripoli’s residents were organizing themselves into secret cells, or brigades, that would rise up against Col. Gadhafi at the appointed hour. One rebel even told The Globe and Mail that an all-female brigade of volunteers had joined up. The first sign of their resistance came on Saturday, as journalists in the city reported hearing mortars and gunfire – and then, early Monday, reporters at the Rixos hotel saw pitched battles in the streets as Col. Gadhafi’s men struggled to maintain control of the luxury hotel where a few dozen members of the international press have been virtual prisoners during most of the six-month war.
Speaking to a ballroom full of reporters wearing bulletproof vests, Col. Gadhafi’s main spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, said loyalist gunmen will continue to resist the rebels because they’re afraid of the consequences of defeat.
“People are terrified, and they are fighting out of fear,” Mr. Ibrahim said, his eyes darting quickly around the room.
The rebel council has repeatedly promised to obey the laws of armed conflict and respect human rights; its leaders have suggested that only the most senior members of Col. Gadhafi’s regime have too much blood on their hands to avoid prosecution.
Still, the rebel lawyers who make such promises are hundreds of kilometres away from the wild youths still fighting their way through Tripoli neighbourhoods, and the early days of the uprising saw a few cases of extra-judicial killings. Whether the rebels indulge in revenge violence once again may become a determining factor in whether the conflict continues, with resistance from the pro-Gadhafi tribes.
No reports of such problems have yet emerged, said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank.
“Early indications point away from mass retribution,” Mr. Joshi said. “The swift collapse of Gadhafi forces averted a bloodbath and, thus, mass grievance. The TNC [Transitional National Council] is one of the most reconciliation-minded rebel movements to have emerged in recent years, and even if it struggles to exert control, it has no incentive to destroy its credibility at its moment of triumph.”