CAIRO – Libyan rebels battled Monday to hold Tripoli as Moammar Gadhafi’s son and longtime heir apparent – whom the rebels claimed to have captured – made a surprise appearance outside a hotel and dismissed claims that his father had lost control of the country.
That Seif al-Islam Gadhafi was in fact free – and not in their custody, as they’d bragged Sunday – wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment for the rebels. It also raised serious questions about the credibility of the opposition government set to take control of post-Gadhafi Libya and, more urgently, about the rebels’ claims to control nearly all of the capital.
Seif al-Islam’s purported arrest had signaled the imminent end of the regime, and it wasn’t clear whether he escaped from custody or was never captured at all. Rebel leaders didn’t immediately explain what happened, and the White House had no immediate comment.
Just a day earlier, the International Criminal Court had said it would ask the rebels to transfer Seif al-Islam to its custody to try him for crimes against humanity. Late Monday, Arabic satellite channels showed the son swaggering out of an armored SUV outside a hotel housing foreign journalists shortly after midnight local time, wearing a scruffy beard and an army green T-shirt, shaking hands with supporters and saying, “Things are fine in Tripoli.”
News services reported that Seif al-Islam then took some foreign journalists on a tour of parts of Tripoli under Gadhafi’s control and suggested that government forces had allowed the rebels to enter Tripoli as a plot to entrap them.
The news cast a pall of uncertainty over a day in which rebels battled to consolidate their grip on the capital even as they clashed with pro-Gadhafi holdouts at his Bab al Azizya compound in southern Tripoli. Another Gadhafi son, Mohammed, reportedly escaped rebel custody in unclear circumstances. And residents in Zuwara, a town west of Tripoli and about 30 miles from the Tunisian border, reported heavy shelling from three nearby towns believed to be loyal to the longtime ruler.
Anees al Fonas, a member of the rebel media council from Zuwara who spoke by phone from Tunisia, said that rockets and mortars had been fired “for the last 24 hours, nonstop,” from the nearby towns of Zolton, Riqdalin and Al Jamil. One civilian was killed Monday when a rocket landed on the roof of his house, and four others were injured, Fonas said.
A small group of rebels were on the outskirts of Zuwara, but reinforcements from rebel-held Sabrata, about 25 miles to the east, could not arrive because Gadhafi forces reportedly were stationed near a road connecting the two.
President Barack Obama called for a “peaceful, inclusive and just” transition but warned that the situation “is still very fluid.” The six-month fight against Gadhafi, aided by a NATO-led coalition, turned in favor of the rebels only in the past two weeks, and took far longer than the Arab Spring revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
Still, Obama, who was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., told rebels that “the Libya you deserve is within your reach.” And residents reached by phone said that much of Tripoli appeared to be in opposition hands, with rebels and volunteers setting up checkpoints, deploying civilian patrols and securing buildings.
The Rixos Hotel, where Seif al-Islam arrived, is one of the few places Gadhafi’s forces had retained control, in part by positioning gunmen nearby and threatening foreign journalists that they would be shot if they stepped outside. In TV footage, he’s shown describing the rebels as “saboteurs” and said that “The people of Libya have broken the spine of those gangsters.”
Gadhafi himself remained at large, a status that “almost doesn’t matter,” said the U.S. State Department’s Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
“He has become, for all intents and purposes, part of Libya’s past, and now people need to look to build Libya’s better future,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
In Tripoli, there remained an air of apprehension about whether Gadhafi’s four-decade stranglehold on the oil-rich North African nation had really come to an end. An employee answering the phones in Tripoli at the Veba Oil Co., a subsidiary of the National Oil Co. of Libya, said few people were at work Monday.
“Everybody stays in their homes, nobody goes out,” said the man, who would not disclose his name for fear of retribution. “I hope it is good … that things become better than before. I am a normal person, what I see in the street is that nobody can understand this. We hope it becomes like before.”
The oil company employee said he didn’t know the condition of export facilities or production and said those are questions Libyans are asking, too. But stable Internet and cellular telephone networks returned to the city Monday, said one resident of eastern Tripoli, Adel, who also declined to give his last name because of safety concerns.
“The families in Tripoli are celebrating the arrival of the rebels – they have been terrorized and suppressed for months,” he said. “Anyone who talked was arrested by the Gadhafi army and would disappear. We are finally breathing our freedom, God help us continue and reach our victory.”
Obama urged rebel forces to respect law and human rights, a call echoed by the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was Gadhafi’s justice minister before defecting near the start of the uprising.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday to Abdul Jalil about what the international community can do to assist Libyans in protecting civilians as well as providing key services, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. Clinton and Abdul Jalil also spoke about the rebel council’s efforts to assemble an inclusive government that will “foster peaceful reconciliation among all of Libya’s people,” Nuland said.
Abdul Jalil, who’s expected to become Libya’s new leader until elections are held, said he hoped that Gadhafi would be captured alive and given a fair trial. In a news conference in Benghazi, the rebels’ eastern capital, he said even Libyans who’d previously withheld their support for the uprising would be welcomed as partners.
He urged holdouts to join the rebels’ side, saying it was “better late than never.”