REBELS in Libya have seized the heavily fortified compound of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after a gunfight in Tripoli which raged for hours.
But in a bizarre element in a day of high drama, the whereabouts of Gaddafi and his family was not known.
After gun battles in the centre of the capital, rebels charged into the compound as Gaddafi loyalists who had been guarding it fled.
The storming of the Bab Al-Aziziya compound meant the final bastion of Gaddafi’s 42-year rule had collapsed.
But rebels said fighting in the capital had come at a heavy cost.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, 400 people had been killed and 2000 wounded in three days of fighting in Tripoli.
He said some 600 pro-Gaddafi fighters had been captured but the battle would not be over until the Libyan leader himself was a prisoner.
Rebel leaders also said the country’s transition would begin immediately and that Qatar would host a meeting later today to organise $2.4 billion in aid for the country.
The seizing of Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli was greeted by an eruption of celebratory gunfire, barely dampened by the fact there was no sign of him or any of his family.
Not long after once-feared Bab al-Azizya fell, the insurgent commander in Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, said we “won the battle” for Tripoli, and that Gaddafi and his cronies had “fled like rats.”
“The military battle is over now,” he said, adding that 90 per cent of Gaddafi’s compound “has been secured” with some pockets of resistance remaining.
It is believed Gaddafi may have fled through a tunnel and then car to his hometown of Serte.
Rebel forces later said several Scud missiles had been fired from Serte at rebel-held Misrata, further up the coast.
Gaddafi had built a series of tunnels in Tripoli which went for kilometres to outside points should he ever need to escape in a hurry, like yesterday.
Rebels went from room to room of the compound searching for Gaddafi and family members.
They smashed and defiled images of Gaddafi and discovered massive amounts of ammunition, including a gold-plated AK-47.
Some rebels jumped into Gaddafi’s swimming pool while others ran around the compound firing “celebratory gunfire.”
There were massive traffic jams as families drove around to celebrate, honking their horns and waving the pre-Gaddafi red, black and green flag the rebels have adopted as their standard.
From inside the compound, television footage showed a young rebel climbing atop a huge sculpture of a fist gripping an aeroplane, a symbol of a US attack on the compound in 1986, trying to break off a piece of it.
But snipers loyal to Gaddafi continued to fire at rebels and crowds in the centre of Tripoli.
A major gunfight also went on for Tripoli’s international airport, which rebels took some days ago but which Gaddafi supporters tried yesterday to recapture.
Proving that the fight was not yet over, at least five mortar bombs rained down on Gaddafi’s complex after dark, sending fighters fleeing the darkened maze of high-walled alleys.
A rebel later said he thought the defiant attack was launched from the capital’s loyalist Abu Slim district.
“We will surround it tomorrow, and God willing we will take it. After that we must take the airport road,” fighter Akram said.
“But tonight we celebrate. This is a great victory. I say to all the dictators in the world, stand down, and let people live in freedom.”
Akram said that Gaddafi had tried to trick rebels by disguising loyalist fighters as cleaners,who pulled guns on rebels inside the compound.
“We killed them,” he said, along with around 40 fighters from Abu Slim. The other loyalists in the compound were all African, he said.
Amid reports that ordinary citizens were beginning to stream into the Gaddafi complex, rebel television Al-Ahrar called on people to stay away so that insurgent fighters could mop up inside.
It also urged police in Tripoli to remain at their posts in order to guarantee security, while rebels and locals manned checkpoints, stopping and searching cars looking for Gaddafists and weapons.
An old man with three small children came out of a house. They looked bewildered, as if they had not been out for days.
Women who had been weeping earlier in the day with desperation, were now ululating with joy, as thousands flooded the central Martyrs’ Square, formerly Gaddafi’s Green Square.
Families and carloads of women drove into the square, some with “Liberation” written in henna on the hands, smiling and screaming “We are free!” after breaking the Ramadan dawn-to-dusk fast with family meals.
Last night about 25 foreign journalists in Tripoli who had effectively been imprisoned in the Rixos Hotel for the last week huddled in a room on the top floor.
They hung white flags out of their window with “TV” written on it.
They said they feared that Gaddafi soldiers would enter the hotel.
Hours after Gaddafi’s compound fell, senior Libyan rebel official Mahmud Jibril said the country’s transition “begins immediately”.
Speaking at a press conference in Doha, the number two in the National Transitional Council said “we will build a new Libya, with all Libyans as brothers for a united, civil and democratic nation.
“This is the new Libya where every Libyan works as a beloved brother, hand in hand, to serve the interests of the nation to ensure equality and justice for everyone.
“We have to be transparent in front of the whole world. Now we have to concentrate on building and healing our wounds.”
He said a meeting of donor nations later today would be “to make provisions and arrange for $2.4 billion for the NTC in order to pay salaries of Libyans before Eid and to arrange for all the medical treatment and the artificial limbs which are required for the injured.”