August 23, 2011 2:19:00 PM
TRIPOLI, Libya -- Hundreds of Libyan rebels blasted through the green gates of Moammar Gadhafi''s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli Tuesday after five hours of intense fighting around it. They beat and killed some of those who defended it, fired celebratory shots in the air and hauled off crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back.
The storming of the sprawling compound in the capital, long the nexus of Gadhafi''s power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime, even though pockets of resistance are likely to persist around the country for some time. It was only Sunday night that the rebels surprised everyone with their lightning fast advance into Tripoli, quickly capturing large parts of the city of 2 million.
"We''re looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a 29-year-old rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle. Gadhafi''s whereabouts were still unknown.
One fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi''s home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many a fiery speech from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television at the beginning of the 6-month-old uprising, mocking his opponents.
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with an RPG slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is hiding underground inside the complex.
"Wasn''t he the one who called us rats. Now he is the rat underground," he said. Asked how it felt to be standing inside Gadhafi''s compound, the fighter who came from to Tripoli two days ago from rebel-held western city of Misrata replied:
"It''s an explosion of joy inside. I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi''s house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
Associated Press reporters inside the compound said parts of it appeared to still be under control of government forces who were firing toward the rebels, making for an atmosphere of joyful celebration mixed with tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles and the sound of crackling gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" and on loudspeakers they cried: "Hamdullah, hamdullah" or "Thank God."
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters -- one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot -- were sprawled on the ground.
Fighters with long beards hugged each other and flashed the "V" for victory. Others carried injured rebels to ambulances.
There was a frenzy of looting inside, directed mainly at weapons. Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand new rifles still in their paper wrappings. Scuffles broke out, pushing and shoving to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine guns and handguns are stored. They came out drenched in sweat from the struggle.
Some used a rifle bayonet to crack open a green box that contained guns and pushed each other to lay their hands on the booty.
Ali Sameer, a 45-year-old Tripoli resident, stood nearby with three brand new rifles resting on his legs.
"They are for my friends. I don''t even know how to fight," he said.
Abdul-Salamah Alawah, 29, who arrived on a boat from Misrata last night, loaded a clip into his handgun.
"This one is especially for Gadhafi," he said.
The rebels carted out boxes of the weapons and ammunition, and some drove off with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on the back. One drove out with a golf cart, another walked out with a fan.
Others were busy ripping down posters of Gadhafi.
Ayman Coumi, a 21-year-old fighter inside, said there were five hours of heavy fighting before they broke through the gates.
"We entered from three sides," he said.
Near Gadhafi''s old home with the statue outside, the body of a dead Gadhafi loyalist lay inside a large tent with glass windows shot out. It was partly covered by a blanket, his head sticking out with a gaping gunshot wound.
A second, much larger tent was on fire.
Gadhafi has a famous penchant for Bedouin-style tents, meant to symbolize his roots as a simple desert dweller. He received guests in the tents inside Bab al-Aziziya.
Inside the compound, the streets were littered with rocks and the walls were pockmarked by bullets.
The Bab al-Aziziya compound has a military barracks surrounded by a high wall fitted with sensors, alarms, and remote-control infrared cameras that constantly scan the access roads. The pictures fed back to a bank of television screens in a main security room.
Gadhafi''s home and office sat in a bunker designed by West German engineers to withstand massive attack, authors David Blundy and Andrew Lycett said in their book "Gadhafi and the Libyan Revolution." The leader''s wife and family lived in a two-story building, their opulent living room decorated with glass screens, paintings and sofas.
Gadhafi entertained guests in a Bedouin-style tent pitched near two tennis courts about 200 yards from the family home.
In other parts of the capital, the rebels said they were also in control of the state television. They raised the flag on the top of the building. Rebels claimed they also control the airport.
Libya''s former deputy ambassador to the U.N. said he expects the entire country will be in rebel hands within 72 hours. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who with other diplomats has continued to work at the Libyan mission since disavowing Gadhafi in February, said Tuesday he expects Libya will be "totally liberated."
In the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, the news of the Bab al-Aziziya storming was greeted with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers. Men drove around with their cars waving the rebel flags.
Wael Abu Khris, a 35-year-old shipping agent turned rebel fighter from Tripoli, was walking around Gadhafi''s compound after the battle, carrying his Kalashnikov.
"I feel great satisfaction. We are at last free of this dictator," he said. "Libya is free at last. No more Gadhafi!"
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he said he has been married for six years, but only now does he want to have children.