Libya: On-the-run Gaddafi remains defiant
Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed Muammar Gaddafi's compound, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armouries 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 Gaddafi's power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gaddafi 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-Gaddafi 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 it would air the comments in full and reported an excerpt in which Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummelled many times over by Nato bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
In Wednesday's TV interviews, Gaddafi 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," Mr 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 Gaddafi's forces still controlled 80% of the capital, which he said was a "death trap" and "ticking time bomb" for the rebels.