Libya: Final battle under way as rebels advance on Tripoli
The final battle for Libya was under way today as advancing rebel forces routed loyalist troops on the outskirts of Tripoli and Nato declared Col Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was "crumbling".
Rebels claimed they encountered no resistance from Gaddafi forces as they were just four miles from the centre of the capital.
“Clearly we’re into the last stage of the regime – the writing is on the wall,” Oana Lungescu, the chief Nato spokesman, said. “We’re seeing people packing their bags – three top people defecting in the past couple of days, and Gaddafi-controlled territory shrinking before our eyes.”
Last night, residents of Tripoli took to the streets to celebrate the expected defeat of the regime.
After quickly consolidating their triumph in the key oil town of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, rebels have fought their way through towns on the capital’s western fringes as residents of the anti-regime eastern suburbs staged their own uprising.
Last night, rebels said regime forces were negotiating the surrender of the country’s main military airbase, Mitiga, in eastern Tripoli. They also claimed Gaddafi’s Presidential Guard had surrendered.
Local groups they had been supported by a seaborne landing by rebel troops from Misurata 120 miles to the east.
Nato jets bombed government positions in Tripoli, including ones around the Gaddafi leadership compound at Bab al-Aziziya.
Gaddafi officials said that fighting in the capital on Saturday night and Sunday morning killed 376 people on both sides and injured about 1,000. The Libyan leader gave two addresses by telephone to state television. In the first, he still assumed a customary tone of imminent victory. “The rats are escaping,” he jeered, referring to an initial success by his security forces in putting down overnight protests in the city.
Last night, this time sounding beleaguered, he insisted that he was still in Tripoli side by side with those still loyal to him, and demanded that citizens “go forth in strength” to defend it.
“We can’t go back,” he said. “Until the last drop of our blood, we will be here defending the city.
“We are not going to surrender to the traitors. I am here in this battle with you. As I promised you I’m here, I will never give up, and we will achieve victory.” A regime spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, in an angry and impassioned attack on Nato for helping “cowards” advance on Tripoli, also pledged to fight on, but, at the same time, called for a ceasefire and a peaceful solution.
However, Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, said that all recent efforts by the United Nations special envoy, Abdelilah al-Khatib, to contact the regime for talks had been rebuffed.
Abdessalam Jalloud, Libya’s former prime minister, who defected to the rebels, said yesterday that it was too late for Col Gaddafi to strike a deal to leave power and he would likely be killed, adding he thought the regime “has a week left, 10 days at most”. The White House said it believed Col Gaddafi was in his last days in power.
The speed of the rebels’ advance on the capital has been faster than anyone, even they, expected. It took them just Saturday to clear the remaining Gaddafi forces out of the eastern side of Zawiyah.
They continued to push forward during the course of Sunday, taking villages between it and Tripoli.
Government forces put up resistance on the main coast road near the barracks of the feared Khamis Brigade, named after Col Gaddafi’s son, its commander.
It was once a byword for the ferocity of the regime, but, even here, government troops fled, leaving behind boxes of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades.
Dancing rebels raised their tricolor flag over the gate. “This is the wealth of the Libyan people that he was using against us,” said Ahmed al-Ajdal, a fighter with the rebel’s Tripoli Brigade. “Now we will use it against him and any other dictator who goes against the Libyan people.”
The rebels mustered tanks and hundreds of reinforcements for their push from the west and last night were fighting in the suburb of Janzour.
In the most audacious move, about 200 rebels from Misurata joined in with a seaborne assault behind Gaddafi lines on the east.
They were immediately plunged into a battle with forces loyal to Col Gaddafi inside Mitiga airbase before the negotiations began.
Opposition officials said that residents and fighters had taken control of the Tajoura, Souk al-Jumaa, Arada and al-Sabaa districts of Tripoli.
Government troops were battling residents in Ben Ashhour, Fashloum, and Zawiyat al-Dahmani. One official said Col Gaddafi’s troops had brought out heavy armour and tanks that had been kept hidden since the start of the bombing campaign, justifying their tactics of striking in advance of the rebels’ front lines.
A rebel spokesman has claimed that Col Gaddafi is “near the Algerian border”.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of National Transitional Council (NTC), called on the residents of Tripoli to avoid “retaliation against some who have been close” to Gaddafi.
In an address on Libya TV from Qatar, Mr Jalil said “we hope that nobody would do justice themselves”, adding that “a public body for reconciliation and correcting the injustices” had been set up.
The Foreign Office welcomed his statement, and said that “calls for reconciliation and the need to respect the rule of law and prevent revenge attacks against pro-Gaddafi forces demonstrate the commitment of the Free Libya Forces to building a new Libya based on respecting human rights and the rule of law.”
The spokesman said that Libyans were “fighting hard for a future without Gaddafi and have shown resolve, commitment and dignity in the face of terrible atrocities” and added: “Our support to the Libyan people is unwavering.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, RAF Tornados bombed a building known as the Baroni Centre in south-west Tripoli that was being used by the Gaddafi regime’s intelligence organisations as a communications facility.
Aircraft also attacked a tank, an artillery gun and two command-and-control facilities on the outskirts of Tripoli along with another facility in Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town.