TRIPOLI, Libya – Beneath the grassy courtyard of Moammar Gadhafi’s private compound, long tunnels connect bunkers, command centers and spiral staircases that lead to a luxurious home filled with Gadhafi family photos.
The electric lights are out and the banks of telephones have gone dead.
When rebels took over the compound Tuesday, they discovered what had long been rumored: An elaborate secret underground network.
Outsiders had never seen the tunnels beneath the Bab al-Aziziya compound. Many Libyans assume that underground passages connect all of Tripoli – which they say explains Gadhafi’s ability to appear for speeches in places where no one saw him arrive. Some guess he fled the city through one of the tunnels as the rebels swept into Tripoli, though because of damage from NATO bombing, it was not possible to determine if the tunnels actually extend outside of Bab al-Aziziya.
After overrunning the compound, long seen as the symbolic heart of Gadhafi’s rule, the rebels set alight his family home, seized huge numbers of weapons and turned the complex into a staging ground for fighting elsewhere in the capital.
They also discovered the underground network beneath it, a web of tunnels whose reach is still unclear.
“There’s a Tripoli above ground and a Tripoli underground,” said rebel fighter Ismail Dola, 26, exploring the tunnels with friends.
But few rebels were surprised that Gadhafi, who ruled for four decades and has survived multiple assassination attempts, would have a secret world where he could escape.
“It’s normal that someone like Moammar would do this to protect himself,” said rebel Riad Gneidi, walking curiously through the tunnels with an assault rifle over his shoulder. “Any dictator has to have a way to protect himself and to escape in times like these.”
The Bab al-Aziziya compound had always been a mystery to most Libyans. Though it is one of the city’s largest landmarks, no streets signs indicate where it is. Few ever entered, and many Tripoli residents said they wouldn’t even walk nearby, fearing security guards on the compound’s high green walls would get suspicious and arrest or shoot them.
Four days after the rebels arrived in the capital, Gadhafi’s whereabouts remain a mystery. His spokesman, in a Thursday phone call to the AP, insists he still commands resistance to the rebels – a claim that strains credulity, given the breakdown of the regime’s communications networks after months of NATO bombings. Gadhafi himself has released two audio messages urging his followers to fight “until victory or martyrdom.”
But the rebels are slowly taking control of the country. On Thursday, 1,000 rebels laid siege to a cluster of Tripoli buildings not far from the compound, an area believed to be the last stronghold inside the capital of Gadhafi loyalists. The rebels appeared to have won the battle by sundown.
The tunnels have become an attraction for curious rebels.
They are high enough for a tall man to stand upright and wide enough so two people can walk comfortably abreast. Their walls are foot-thick concrete, with heavy metal doors that divide the tunnels into sections. Gas masks in plastic cases have been distributed throughout the complex, along with stashes of water, cola, cookies and tuna. Empty refrigerators stand in some corners.
The tunnels lead to an array of rooms. Some are simple sleeping quarters with double beds, small refrigerators and dressers, perhaps meant for guards. Others appear to be blast bunkers, with thicker walls and small metal hatches. In one tunnel lies the ruins of a smashed white and green golf cart – the kind Gadhafi often drove in the compound.
In places, the tunnels open into multiroom complexes. One lies under Gadhafi’s former residence, which the United States bombed in 1984. Doors at the top of curving, tiled stairways to the house have been bricked shut. Nearby is a broken elevator.
Some of the tunnels are now black with soot and filled with debris from NATO bombings.
One area on the compound’s edge, reduced to rubble by the bombs, has rooms full of TVs and at least three getaway ramps leading to the street. Before the bombing, it was covered with grass and invisible from above.
Another section has bunk beds, a full sitting room, a bathroom, a kitchen and an office full of video production equipment. The rest of the area has been reduced to rubble, and the sun shines through holes punched in the roof by bombs.
Peeking out the hatch at the top of a ladder nearby, one sees carnival rides on the lawn above – twirling tea cups and a small Ferris wheel – perhaps for Gadhafi’s grandchildren.
One tunnel leads beneath the Gadhafi family home.
The house itself is a sprawling orange stucco building surrounded by a green metal wall. The area is grassy and full of trees, with a swimming pool in the middle and surrounded by smaller homes – all of which have been heavily looted by rebels and Tripoli residents.
Rebels set fire to the home, leaving smoke alarms blaring two days later, but some rooms remain partially intact, giving hints of the lives of Libya’s first family.
Family photos are stacked in a large, ornate sitting room: Gadhafi shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, his son and heir-apparent Seif al-Islam sitting in a tuxedo at a banquet.
One bedroom has stacks of DVDs, from James Bond to “Kung Fu Killer II.” Papers on a desk include an invitation addressed to Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Arab, who was killed earlier in the war, and a handwritten letter in Arabic to Gadhafi from a farmer asking the Brother Leader to intervene in a land dispute.
Another bedroom is full of stuffed animals and books for improving English. “Love You” is written in red letters on the mirror in an attached bathroom, and the toilet seat looks like a ladybug. There is a litter box and a box of cat food.
A closet in the hallway holds African-print clothes like the ones Gadhafi often wore, though it was not clear if they were his.
Two spiral staircases lead to the bunker rooms below. Simple desks along the walls in one hold dozens of identical red telephones, each with the name of a Libyan city written on it. All the lines are now dead.
“You know which animal lives underground?” asked Dola, the rebel fighter. “The rat,” he said, using a common rebel insult for Gadhafi, who has often called the rebels rodents.
“He’s underground somewhere,” he said. “Beyond that, only God knows where.”
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