Rebels storm into Tripoli, pushing Khadafy to brink

Insurgents arrest two of ruler’s sons

By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / August 22, 2011

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TRIPOLI, Libya - Moammar Khadafy’s grip on power was swiftly slipping away today as rebels marched into the capital and arrested two of his sons, while residents raucously celebrated the prospective end of his four-decade-old rule.

In the city’s central Green Square, the site of many manufactured rallies in support of Khadafy, jubilant Libyans tore down green flags and posters of Khadafy and stomped on them. The rebel leadership announced that the elite presidential guard protecting the Libyan leader had surrendered and that they controlled many parts of the city, but not Khadafy’s leadership compound.

The National Transitional Council, the rebel governing body, issued a mass text message saying, “We congratulate the Libyan people for the fall of Moammar Khadafy and call on the Libyan people to go into the street to protect the public property. Long live free Libya.’’

Officials loyal to Khadafy insisted that the fight was not over and there were clashes between rebels and government troops early this morning. But NATO and US officials made clear that Khadafy’s control of Tripoli, which had been this final stronghold, was now in doubt.

“Clearly the offensive for Tripoli is underway,’’ State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. The statement said “Khadafy’s days are numbered’’ and urged the rebel leadership to prepare for a transfer of power and “maintain broad outreach across all segments of Libyan society and to plan for a post-Khadafy Libya.’’

The shocking collapse of the Khadafy forces appeared to signal the end for one of the world’s most flamboyant and mercurial political figures, the leader of an idiosyncratic government that was frequently as bizarre as it was brutal.

Long a thorn in the side of the West, Khadafy had managed an awkward reconciliation in recent years, abandoning his fledgling nuclear program and paying billions of dollars to the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, which was attributed to Libyan agents.

While denying that he headed the government, Khadafy created a cult of personality that centered on his Green Book, a volume that could be as trivial as it was impenetrable.

His decades of iron-fisted rule have produced a country, analysts say, that is devoid of credible institutions and any semblance of a civil society - a potential source of trouble in the months and years ahead.

After six months of inconclusive fighting the assault on the capital unfolded at a rapid pace, with insurgents capturing a military base of the vaunted Khamis Brigade where they had expected to meet fierce resistance, and then speeding toward Tripoli and then through several neighborhoods unopposed.

A separate group of rebels waged a fierce battle near the Rixos Hotel, a bastion of Khadafy support near the city center. It was there that a team of rebels said it captured Khadafy’s son and onetime heir apparent, Seif al-Islam.

Rebels also said they accepted the surrender of a second Khadafy son, Mohammed.

Rebel spokesmen said their fighters had surrounded the Bab al Aziziya compound where they believed Khadafy may still be holding out, but they were reluctant to begin an all-out assault.

Khadafy issued defiant audio statements during the night, calling on people to “save Tripoli’’ from a rebel offensive. He said Libyans were becoming “slaves of the imperialists’’ and that “all the tribes are now marching on Tripoli.’’

Mahmoud Hamza, a senior official of the Khadafy foreign ministry, acknowledged in phone call at 1 a.m. today that “it is getting near the end now.’’ But he said that the Khadafy forces had not given up.

“Tripoli now is very dangerous. There is a lot of fighting but there not yet an assault on Bab al Aziziya,’’ he said. “For me this is the most fearful thing, I hope it does not come to that.’’

Al Arabiya television broadcast images of Libyans celebrating in central Tripoli and ripping down Khadafy posters. Huge crowds gathered in Benghazi, the capital of the rebel-controlled eastern part of the country, as expectations grew that Khadafy’s hold on power was crumbling.

Earlier yesterday, protesters took to the streets and cells of rebels inside Tripoli clashed with Khadafy loyalists, opposition leaders and refugees from the city said. Fighting had been heavy in the morning, but by midnight Khadafy’s forces had allowed many districts of the capital to fall without a major battle.

A rebel spokesman said insurgents had opened another new line of attack on Tripoli by sending boats from the port city of Misurata to link up with fighters in the capital. It was not clear how many fighters were involved in that operation.

Moussa Ibrahim, the government’s spokesman, issued media statements through the night, saying more than 1,300 people had died in fighting in the city but that government troops remained in control. Those assertions could not be confirmed.

But the turmoil inside Tripoli and the crumbling of defenses on its outskirts suggested a decisive shift in the revolt, by far the most violent of the Arab Spring uprisings.

NATO troops continued close air support of the rebels all day, with multiple strikes by alliance aircraft helping clear the road to Tripoli from Zawiya. Rebel leaders in the west credited NATO with thwarting an attempt yesterday by Khadafy loyalists to reclaim Zawiya with a flank assault on the city.

Seif Khadafy has been central in the Libyan revolt. Before the uprising began he was known as Libya’s leading advocate of reform in both economic and political life.

He cultivated an Anglophile persona, and often appeared to be waging a tug-of-war against his father’s older and more conservative allies. He was increasingly seen as the most powerful figure behind the scenes of the Libyan government as well as his father’s likely successor.

When the revolt broke out it was Seif Khadafy who delivered the government’s first public response, vowing to wipe out what he called “the rats’’ and warning of a civil war.

In his last public interview, he appeared a changed man. Sitting in a spare hotel conference room, he wore a newly grown beard and fingered prayer beads. After months of denouncing the rebels as dangerous Islamic radicals, he insisted that he was brokering a new alliance with the Islamist faction among the rebels to drive out the liberals.

While rebels expressed hope Khadafy’s forces were losing their will to fight, support for the government could remain strong inside some areas of Tripoli.

Analysts said the crucial role played by NATO in aiding the rebel advance in the relatively unpopulated areas outside the capital could prove far less effective in an urban setting, where concerns about civilian casualties could hamper the alliance’s ability to focus on government troops.

A senior US military officer who has been following the developments closely and who has been in contact with African and Arab military leaders in recent days, expressed caution yesterday about the prospects for Libya even if the Khadafy government should fall.

Even if Khadafy is deposed in some way, the senior officer said, there was still no clear plan for a political succession or for maintaining security in the country.

“The leaders I’ve talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out,’’ said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

“Trying to predict what this guy is going to do is very, very difficult,’’ the officer said, referring to Khadafy.

Few would have predicted that the rebels would meet so little resistance from the 32d Brigade, a unit that NATO had considered one of the most elite in Libya and commanded by Khamis Khadafy, one of the leader’s sons.

The so-called Khamis Brigade was one of the crucial units enforcing the defense lines around the capital, extending about 17 miles outside Tripoli to the west and about 20 miles to the south.

Rebels said those points had been breached by yesterday afternoon despite the expectation that Khadafy would use heavily armored units and artillery to defend them.

It was unclear whether the government troops had staged a tactical retreat or had been dislodged by NATO strikes.

US officials say they are preparing contingency plans if and when Khadafy’s government falls to help prevent the vast Libyan government stockpiles of weapons, particularly portable antiaircraft missiles, from being stolen and dispersed.

Untold numbers of the missiles, including SA-7’s, have been looted from government arsenals, and US officials fear they could circulate widely, including heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles that could be used against civilian airliners.

“What I worry about most is the proliferation of these weapons,’’ the senior military officer said, noting that the United States had been quietly meeting with leaders of Libya’s neighbors in Africa’s Sahel region to stem the flow of the missiles. top stories on Twitter

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