Libyan rebels on Tuesday launched a massive offensive on leader Moamar Gaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Azizya compound in Tripoli, as the brother-leader’s son refuted reports of his own arrest.
Rebel fighters had warned earlier in the day they would imminently mount an attack backed by captured tanks on the compound, in the centre of the capital.
The sound of the fighting was the most intense heard in the city since rebels arrived surged into the capital three days ago, as thick smoke billowed out of the complex.
The sky was filled with the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the overhead roar of NATO jets that have been carrying out much more intense air raids than in recent days.
Even two kilometres (about a mile) from the fighting, the almost constant whistle of falling bullets could be heard from the rooftops, as the city’s mosques chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest).
Exultant rebel fighters packed in trucks and cars have since Sunday streamed across the capital of the oil-rich North African state, seizing control of Gaddafi’s state television network and Tripoli’s seaside Green Square.
But the euphoria of their lightning entry into the heart of the capital, which sparked celebrations and predictions that Gaddafi’s days are numbered, has given way to caution that the fighting is far from over.
US President Barack Obama called for “an inclusive transition” in Libya, demanding that Gaddafi “explicitly” give up power and cautioned the rebels that their struggles were “not over yet.”
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet, who on Monday had declared “The regime has fallen, the turnaround is total”, said on France Inter radio Tuesday: “In Libya the situation is not totally at an end, far from it.”
The opposition’s image took a knock when its claims that Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam had been arrested were refuted by none other than the man himself, who appeared before cheering armed loyalists outside Bab al-Azizya in the early hours of Tuesday.
“Tripoli is under our control. Everyone should rest assured. All is well in Tripoli,” Seif told journalists at the compound, smiling broadly and flashing the V for victory sign.
“I am here to refute the lies,” the 39-year-old said about reports of his arrest, and accused the West of waging a “technological and media war to cause chaos and terror in Libya.”
Seif, who like his father is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, claimed the insurgents had suffered “heavy casualties” Monday when they launched their first attempt to storm the Bab al-Azizya compound.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted in London that the defiant appearance of Seif was “not the sign of some great comeback for the Gaddafi regime”.
“He is not roaming freely through Tripoli. He and the remaining pro-Gaddafi forces are now cornered, they are making their last stand, and it’s only a matter of time before they are finally defeated,” Clegg said.
The opposition also suffered another setback when Mohammed Gaddafi, the leader’s eldest son, escaped from house arrest, according to the Libyan ambassador to Washington in an interview, which most observers doubt.
Outside of the capital, the rebels said they had cut off a column of pro-Gaddafi troops attempting to march on Tripoli from the city of Sirte, the leader’s hometown.
According to a NATO officials in Brussels, loyalist forces fired a Scud missile in the direction of the rebel-held western city of Misrata during Monday fighting.
The “surface-to-surface Scud” was launched “from the vicinity of Sirte,” chief NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
It “landed in the coastal area of Misrata, most likely in the sea or on the shore,” she said, adding “we are not aware of damage or casualties.”
The mood around Tripoli’s iconic Green Square, renamed “Martyrs Square” by the rebels, had been joyous on Sunday night, with fighters and their supporters dancing and waving the red, black and green flag of anti-regime forces.
But Tripoli residents have since become palpably nervous as the end game plays out.
“The Gaddafi era is over,” rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil told a news conference in the anti-Kadhafi stronghold of Benghazi, eastern Libya.
But while thanking NATO for its military support, he conceded that not all of Tripoli was under rebel control and cautioned that “the real moment of victory is when Gaddafi is captured”.
The whereabouts of the strongman are not known but the United States said it did not believe he has left Libya.
Gaddafi broadcast three defiant audio messages on Sunday, vowing he would never surrender and urging the people of Tripoli to “purge the capital”. But he has not been seen in public for weeks as the rebels have crept ever closer.