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Scattered battles flare across Tripoli

August 23rd, 2011 2:32 pm by BEN HUBBARD and PAUL SCHEMM

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Scattered battles flared Wednesday across the Libyan capital, with pro-regime snipers cutting off the road to Tripoli's airport while other loyalist fighters launched repeated attacks on Moammar's Gadhafi's captured private compound.

While opposition fighters claimed they had most of Tripoli under control, a defiant Gadhafi vowed from hiding that he would fight on "until victory or martyrdom."

Few civilians were willing to venture outside. The streets of the city were scattered with debris, broken glass, garbage and other remnants of fighting, while rebels manned checkpoints every few hundred yards.

But intense clashes broke out in the Abu Salim neighborhood next to Gadhafi's vast Bab al-Aziziya compound. Gadhafi loyalists inside Abu Salim were also firing into the captured compound. Abu Salim is home to a notorious prison and thought to be one of the regime's final strongholds.

Rebels found no sign of Gadhafi after a battle Tuesday for Bab al-Aziziya, but rumors churned through the city about his possible whereabouts. While the conquest effectively signaled the end of the regime, the rebels know they will face pockets of stiff resistance for some time to come — and that they cannot really proclaim victory until Gadhafi is found.

One rebel official said a group of Tripoli businessmen had announced a $2 million reward for the arrest or killing of Gadhafi, but Col. Ahmed Bani, a rebel spokesman, said the rebels themselves were only offering amnesty.

"The biggest prize is to offer amnesty, not to give money," he said.

Gadhafi's foreign minister told British broadcaster Channel 4 that the longtime dictator had exhausted all his options and his rule "was over." Although it was once thought possible that Gadhafi would get safe passage out of Libya, al-Obeidi said that was now unlikely.

"Now I'm not in touch with anybody, so it looks like things have passed this kind of solution," he said.

Rebel fighters, who by Wednesday afternoon appeared to control most but not all of Bab al-Aziziya, were using the compound as staging area for their operations, loading huge trucks with ammunition and discussing deployments.

But their movements inside the compound were repeatedly disrupted Wednesday by loyalist attacks, with pro-Gadhafi snipers firing on the fighters from tall buildings in Abu Salim.

"There are also civilians in those buildings who support Gadhafi and they too are firing on us," said Mohammed Amin, a rebel fighter.

He said the rebels have surrounded Abu Salim, but have been unable to push into it. Amin said one rebel had been killed in the area Wednesday morning and four more were captured by pro-Gadhafi soldiers.

The rebels claim they control the Tripoli airport but are still clashing with Gadhafi forces in the streets around it. AP reporters said the road leading to the airport was closed because of heavy fire by pro-regime snipers.

Khalil Mabrouk, a 37-year-old rebel, said he had just come from the airport and the rebels have been inside since Monday. Most of the airport was cleared of Gadhafi troops, he said, but pro-Gadhafi's forces to the south were firing rockets and shelling rebel positions inside.

Meanwhile, dozens of foreign journalists were released Wednesday after being held captive for days by pro-government gunmen at Tripoli's once-luxurious Rixos Hotel, which is next to Abu Salim. A steady barrage of machine gunfire and heavy weapons could be heard in the area through the day, including in a large wooded park behind the hotel.

Elsewhere in the city, streets were deserted except for the rebel checkpoints, where fighters looked for Gadhafi supporters and checked the trunks of cars for weapons. At one checkpoint, a picture of Gadhafi, once ubiquitous throughout the city, had been laid on the ground so cars had to drive over it.

Many buildings were covered in the pro-rebel graffiti that has appeared over the last few days.

Trash, already a problem in the waning months of Gadhafi's rule, now covers many streets and sidewalks. The shredded remains of Gadhafi's green flags were also scattered across the city.

Inside Gadhafi's compound, two young rebel fighters searched through a heap of pill packages in a building they said had served as a pharmacy. A broken TV, its screen shattered, lay on the ground in the courtyard. Debris littered the ground. A dozen young fighters posed for pictures next to a gold-colored statue of a clenched fist squeezing a plane — a memorial to the 1986 U.S. airstrikes on the compound in retaliation for a bombing at a German disco frequented by U.S. servicemen.

"The blood of our martyrs will not be spilled in vain," the fighters chanted, pumping their fists.

Even as his 42-year-old regime was crumbling around him, Gadhafi vowed not to surrender. In an audio message early Wednesday, he called on residents of the Libyan capital and loyal tribesmen to free Tripoli from the "devils and traitors" who have overrun it.

The rebels have taken control of much of Libya, sweeping through the country with the help of a relentless NATO air campaign that included including about 7,500 strike attacks against Gadhafi's forces. A NATO statement said it launched 46 strike missions Tuesday, with targets including two armored fighting vehicles, two heavy military trucks, three anti-aircraft missile systems and one radar were attacked near Tripoli.

Fighting also continued in areas outside of Tripoli. For the past four days, residents say government forces have been shelling the port town of Zwara, about 70 miles west of the capital.

All roads to the city have now been cut off, said Sefask al-Azaabi, a 29-year-old rebel.

As government forces have been defeated elsewhere, Gadhafi's forces "take their revenge by shelling our town," he said by telephone. "It is indiscriminate shelling that badly damaged our main hospital and the port."

He said rebel forces were running out of weapons, ammunition and medicine.

"We are appealing to the (rebel) military council to send us reinforcements or this town will be finished in no time, and Gadhafi's forces can easily take over," he said.

Rebel leaders, meanwhile, made first moves to set up a new government in the capital. During Libya's six-month civil war, opposition leaders had established their interim administration, the National Transitional Council, in the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell under rebel control shortly after the outbreak of widespread anti-regime protests in February.

"Members of the council are now moving one by one from Benghazi to Tripoli," said Mansour Seyf al-Nasr, the Libyan opposition's new ambassador to France.

A rebel leader, Mahmoud Jibril, was to meet later Wednesday with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of the Libyan opposition, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was clear Gadhafi had lost control of the majority of the Libyan capital and that this served as a "fundamental and decisive rejection" of the tyrant's regime.

Hague called on Gadhafi to "stop issuing delusional statements."

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