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Tripoli battle not over as Gaddafi forces strike back

(People's Daily Online)

16:14, August 23, 2011

Forces loyal to the hidden Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi struck back against the rebel fighters who had swept into Tripoli on Sunday night, forcing them to retreat from several strategic locations and tempering hopes that the battle for Tripoli was all but over.

The dramatic appearance Monday night of Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam at the Rixos hotel, where the Tripoli-based press corps remains trapped, contradicted the rebels' assertion Monday that they had captured him and cast into doubt their claim of controlling at least 80 percent of the capital.

Video footage recorded by the Reuters news agency showed Saif al-Islam being greeted by supporters. "To hell with the ICC," he said, in reference to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. "We assure the people that things are fine in Libya."

The BBC and CNN quoted him as telling reporters that government forces had lured the rebels into a trap and "broken the back" of the opposition army and that pro-Gaddafi forces are back in control of the city.

The confusion made the assertion impossible to confirm, but with gunfire and explosions echoing ominously through the streets and Gaddafi's whereabouts still unknown, it was clear that the capital was far from secure.

President Obama and other world leaders declared an end to Gaddafi's 42-year-long rule and hailed the courage of the Libyan people. The leaders said they were looking forward to cooperating with a new Libyan government, which presumably would be led by the opposition's Transitional National Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Obama cautioned that "the situation is still very fluid."

"There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat," he said, speaking from Martha's Vineyard, Mass, where he is vacationing. But, addressing his remarks to the Libyan people, he said: "The Libya that you deserve is within your reach."

How close was in question, however, as the uncertainty on Tripoli's streets appeared only to mount as the day wore on. With Gaddafi himself on the run, it was clear that the epic and often-eccentric rule of the man who once proclaimed himself "king of Africa" had effectively come to a close.

Yet the mystery surrounding his whereabouts and the indications that his loyalists were still capable of mounting resistance in the capital raised echoes of Baghdad in April 2003, when Saddam Hussein slipped away from advancing U.S. troops and later served as a lightning rod for disgruntled regime loyalists, who formed the core of an insurgency that persists to this day.

Rebels in Tripoli said they were confident that Gaddafi was still in the capital, and they erected checkpoints around the city to ensure he did not abscond. "We are winning. It is safe," said rebel fighter Abdel Azouz, as the sound of explosions and gunfire echoed down the telephone line. "There's just a few dirty rats here and there who don't want to give up."

Azouz acknowledged, however, that Gaddafi loyalists were in firm control of the fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound on the southern edge of Tripoli, where Gaddafi purportedly lived. NATO has targeted the compound so frequently that few Libyans believe he has been staying there recently, but the rebels suspect that he may be hiding in a house somewhere in the area.

The compound is about a mile from the Rixos hotel, where journalists are effectively being held hostage by pro-Gaddafi gunmen in the lobby who are refusing to let them leave.

Speaking on a borrowed telephone because the batteries on his phone had run out, CNN correspondent Matthew Chance said that the hotel was without electricity and that the journalists had gathered for safety in an inside room. "This could go badly wrong," he told the network. "It's becoming a lot more ugly here."

It is also possible that Gaddafi is not in Tripoli but had taken refuge perhaps weeks ago in the southern city of Sabha or the central coastal town of Sirte, his home town and most staunchly loyal stronghold. He has not been seen in public since June, although he has delivered numerous audio statements, most recently as the rebels swept into Tripoli late Sunday.

With the focus now on the capital, it was unclear when or whether the rebels would be able to dislodge Gaddafi's supporters from Sirte, a heavily guarded garrison town that lies on the coastal highway between the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi and Tripoli, effectively isolating the rebel government from the country's real capital.

Speaking in Benghazi, council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil acknowledged that Sirte was going to be a tougher challenge than even Tripoli. He said he was hoping the town's residents would rise up, as many in Tripoli did, something that seems unlikely given that most of the area's residents are members of Gaddafi's tribe.

"Libyans must know and must realize that the coming period will not be a bed of roses," Abdel Jalil said, adding that the principles of "safety, security, peace and prosperity" will be "achieved through reconciliation, forbearance and tolerance."

The Transitional National Council is planning to head to Tripoli soon, Abdel Jalil said, but he offered no specifics.

The council leader also hinted at the uncertainty that surrounds his future role, given that most of the rebels who have surged into the capital come from western Libya and do not answer to the rebel command in the distant east.

"My role after the fall of Gaddafi will continue, unless I lose control," Abdel Jalil said.


Leave your comment1 comments

  1. Name

Walton at 2011-09-04174.6.21.*
Maybe NATO will have to put boots on the ground in Libya to make sure Gahdaffi and his followers are put to bed, and the NEW LIBYA is free.

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