Gaddafi regime on the brink as rebels descend on Tripoli
THE trappings of Muammar Gaddafi's regime crumbled last night as hundreds of Libyan rebels overran a major military base defending the capital and raced to the outskirts of Tripoli with virtually no resistance.
The rebels' surprising and speedy leap forward, after six months of largely deadlocked civil war, was packed into just a few dramatic hours.
And in a dramatic twist, the opposition leaders said Gaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, had been arrested.
By nightfall, the rebels had advanced more than 20 miles to the edge of Gaddafi's last major bastion of support.
Along the way, they freed hundreds of prisoners from a regime lock-up. The fighters and the prisoners -- many looking weak and showing scars and bruises from beatings -- embraced and wept with joy.
Thousands of jubilant civilians rushed out of their homes to cheer the long convoys of pick-up trucks packed with rebel fighters shooting in the air.
In villages along the way that fell to the rebels one after another, mosque loudspeakers blared "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great".
"We are going to sacrifice our lives for freedom," said Nabil al-Ghowail, a 30-year-old dentist holding a rifle in the streets of Janzour, a suburb just six miles west of Tripoli. Heavy gunfire erupted nearby.
As town after town fell and Gaddafi forces melted away, the mood turned euphoric.
Inside Tripoli, widespread clashes erupted for a second day between rebel sleeper cells and Gaddafi loyalists. A rebel fighter who spoke to relatives in Tripoli by phone said hundreds rushed into the streets in anti-regime protests in several neighbourhoods.
Libyan state television aired an angry audio message from Gaddafi last night, urging families in Tripoli to arm themselves and fight for the capital.
"The time is now to fight for your politics, your oil, your land," he said. "I am with you in Tripoli -- together until the ends of the earth," Gaddafi shouted.
The day's first breakthrough came when hundreds of rebels fought their way into a major symbol of the Gaddafi regime -- the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by Gaddafi's son, Khamis.
Hundreds of rebels cheered wildly and danced as they took over the compound, raising their tricolour from the front gate and tearing down a large billboard of Gaddafi.
Inside, they cracked open wooden crates labelled "Libyan Armed Forces" and loaded their trucks with huge quantities of munitions.
"This is the wealth of the Libyan people that Gaddafi was using against us," said Ahmed al-Ajdal (27) pointing to his haul. "Now we will use it against him and any other dictator who goes against the people."
One group started up a tank, drove it out of the gate, crushing the median of the main highway and driving off toward Tripoli. Rebels celebrated the capture with deafening amounts of celebratory gunfire.
Across the street, rebels raided a huge warehouse, making off with hundreds of crates of rockets, artillery shells and large-calibre ammunition.
From the military base, about 16 miles west of Tripoli, the convoy pushed on toward the capital. Mahmoud al-Ghwei (20) said he had just come along with a friend for the ride .
"It's a great feeling. For all these years, we wanted freedom and Gaddafi kept it from us. Now we're going to get rid of Gaddafi and get our freedom," he said.
At nightfall, the fighters reached Janzour, a Tripoli suburb. Along the way, they were greeted by civilians lining the streets and waving rebel flags.
"We are not going back," said Issam Wallani, another rebel. "God willing, this evening we will enter Tripoli."
The uprising against Gaddafi broke out in mid-February, and anti-regime protests quickly spread across the vast desert nation with only six million people.
A brutal regime crackdown quickly transformed the protests into an armed rebellion. Rebels seized Libya's east -- setting up an internationally recognised transitional government there -- and two pockets in the west, the port city of Misrata and the Nafusa mountain range.
Gaddafi clung to the remaining territory. Since the start of August, thousands of rebel fighters, including many who fled Gaddafi-held cities, joined an offensive launched from the mountains toward the coast.
The fighters who had set out from the mountains three weeks ago rushed toward Tripoli yesterday, starting out at dawn from a village just east of the coastal city of Zawiya.
Only a day earlier the rebels had claimed full control of Zawiya, an anti-regime stronghold with 200,000 people and home to Libya's last functioning oil refinery.