TRIPOLI, Libya – Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi’s compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besieged dictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi’s power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for – and gunbattles flaring across the nervous city – the fighters cannot declare victory.
Hours after the battle erupted, a pro-Gadhafi TV channel quoted the Libyan leader as saying he retreated from his Tripoli compound in a “tactical move” after 64 NATO airstrikes turned it to rubble. Al-Rai TV said Wednesday it would air the comments in full and reported an excerpt in which Gadhafi vowed his forces would resist “the aggression with all strength” until either victory or death.
His government’s chief spokesman also managed to get word out in a phone interview with the same station, promising “we will be back to take Tripoli back.”
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for five hours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled off thousands of rifles, crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
“We’re looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now,” said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Tripoli’s new rebel military chief, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, said at nightfall that a small area of the vast compound was still under the control of regime fighters and heavy shooting was heard across Tripoli toward midnight.
The atmosphere in the compound was a mix of joyful celebration and tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles, and the boom of mortars and the crackle of gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted “Allahu akbar” or “God is great” and on loudspeakers they cried: “Al-Hamdullilah,” or “Thank God.”
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters – one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot – were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi and kicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilant comrades danced and yelled around him.
Bab al-Aziziya has been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings.
In Wednesday’s TV interviews, Gadhafi and government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim called the withdrawal from the compound strategic.
“Bab al-Azaziya is nothing but slabs of concrete after 64 NATO airstrikes,” Ibrahim said in a two-hour phone interview with Al-Rai TV. “Our departure from there is a strategic move and we will be back to take Tripoli back.”
He claimed Gadhafi’s forces still controlled 80 percent of the capital, which he said was a “death trap” and “ticking time bomb” for the rebels.