TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi was a hunted man on Monday as loyal remnants of his forces made last-ditch stands in the capital and world leaders rushed to embrace the fractious Libyan rebels as new masters of the oil-rich state.
Two days after their irregular armies launched pincer thrusts into Tripoli in tandem with an uprising in the city, Gaddafi’s tanks and sharpshooters appeared to hold only small areas, including his Bab al-Aziziya headquarters compound.
Civilians, who mobbed the streets late on Sunday to cheer the end of dictatorship, stayed indoors as gunfire crackled.
Reuters correspondents witnessed firefights and a clash with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, as rebels tried to flush out snipers and pockets of resistance. Hundreds appear to have been killed or wounded since Saturday.
Gaddafi’s whereabouts were not known after rebels said they held three of his sons. In a last, defiant, audio broadcast on Sunday before state television went off the air, he said he was still in Tripoli, and would stay “until the end”. There has been speculation he might be in his home region around Sirte.
A U.S. official said there was no evidence he had fled the country. He has few friends left. His prime minister turned up in Tunisia. More Libyan embassies hoisted the rebel flag. And foreign governments which had hesitated to take sides, among them Gaddafi’s Arab neighbours, Russia and China made clear they now felt his 42 years of absolute power were over.
Western powers who have deployed air power in support of a variety of rebel groups, urged the 69-year-old “Brother Leader” to halt the bloodshed after six months of civil war that ebbed and flowed over hundreds of miles of North African desert.
U.S. President Barack Obama said: “Muammar Gaddafi and his regime need to recognise that their rule has come to an end.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who took an early gamble on the Libyan rebels, called on Gaddafi loyalists “to turn their back on the criminal and cynical blindness of their leader by immediately ceasing fire, giving up their arms and turning themselves in to the legitimate Libyan authorities”.
Egypt, whose Arab Spring revolt inspired its neighbours, abandoned its caution and recognised the rebel government. Other beleaguered Arab revolutionaries, notably in Syria, may take heart from a hard-fought triumph in the sands of Libya.
After Gaddafi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be “the most miserable person on earth”, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates: “Gaddafi’s fall,” he said, “Will also inspire the Syrian people.”
Among those detained was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the face of his father’s rapprochement with the West over the past decade but now indicted with his father for crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court said it hoped to question him at The Hague, though a rebel official said Libya might try him.
A rebel official in the eastern city of Benghazi, seat of the opposition National Transitional Council, said some of its representatives had slipped in to Tripoli in recent days to make contact with authorities hitherto loyal to Gaddafi with the aim of averting a breakdown of order in the capital.
Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said would-be defectors had been persuaded in recent weeks to stay in their jobs in Tripoli to help run the city: “Each neighbourhood has its own little council and today they’ve taken over administration including military affairs and security,” he said.
There have been concerns that tribal, ethnic and other divisions among the diverse armed groups opposed to Gaddafi could lead to the kind of blood-letting seen in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. However, the presence of former Gaddafi aides in the rebel camp is cited by some as cause to hope the opposition can prove more inclusive than that in Iraq.
NTC head Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who was Gaddafi’s justice minister until joining the revolt in February, told a news conference in Benghazi: “I call on all Libyans to exercise self-restraint and to respect the property and lives of others and not to resort to taking the law into their own hands.”
Jalil said the National Council would favour foreign countries that had supported the rebellion — a potential blow to the likes of Chinese and Russian oil companies, though they are not the only ones to have cut deals with Gaddafi.
Western governments had competed for the veteran ruler’s favour in recent years after negotiating a grudging resolution to decades of conflict, during which Gaddafi’s “anti-colonial” campaigns saw him support a range of armed groups from the Palestinians to the IRA and take responsibility for the downing of an American airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988.
First signs emerged of moves to begin restoring oil production that has been the foundation of the economy and a source of hope for Libya’s six million, mostly poor, people. Staff from Italy’s Eni arrived to look into restarting facilities, said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Italy, Libya’s nearest European neighbour and the colonial power until World War Two, is a big customer for Libyan energy.
A rebel official in the east said government forces had withdrawn on Monday from the key Mediterranean oil port of Brega, between Benghazi and Tripoli.
Civilians had flocked late on Sunday to Tripoli’s Green Square, long the showpiece of Gaddafi’s personality cult, waving rebel flags. Some said they renamed it Martyrs’ Square.
Young men burned the green flags of the government and raised the rebel tricolour used by the post-colonial monarchy which Gaddafi overthrew in a military coup in 1969.
But on Monday, a Reuters correspondent with rebels moving in from the west watched commanders of the irregular force try to hold their men back from rushing ahead in the city, insisting they check buildings methodically for snipers.
It was slow work and there will little sign of coordination between rebel units. The all-green flags of the Gaddafi government were still hanging in many streets — an indication that rebels did not feel safe enough to rip them down.
“Revolutionaries are positioned everywhere in Tripoli,” said a rebel commander who used the name Abdulrahman. “But Gaddafi’s forces have been trying to resist ... Snipers are the main problem ... There is a big number of martyrs.”
A government official told Reuters 376 people on both sides were killed, and about 1,000 wounded, though it was unclear how the figures were arrived at.
At the Rixos Nasr hotel, where the government had obliged foreign reporters to stay throughout the war, pro-Gaddafi guards prevented journalists from leaving.
Only five months ago, Gaddafi’s forces were set to crush the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He warned then that there would be “no mercy, no pity” for his opponents.
His forces, he said, would hunt them down “district to district, alley to alley, house to house, room to room”. It is a refrain some rebels have thrown back at him in recent days.