Rebels hunt for Gadhafi after takeover of Tripoli

The startling rebel breakthrough in Tripoli has turned into a manhunt for Moammar Gadhafi, the mercurial leader whose remaining loyalists are fighting to keep control of shrinking pockets of the Libyan capital.

Rebel leaders claimed late Monday that they controlled 80 per cent of the capital. But Gadhafi’s 42-year-old regime won’t be completely destroyed, they said, until they grab the 69-year-old dictator.

“The real moment of victory is when Gadhafi is captured,” Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, told a news conference in the opposition’s de facto capital of Benghazi in the east, hundreds of kilometres from Tripoli.

U.S. Pentagon officials believe Gadhafi is still in the country, but his whereabouts are unknown.

Gadhafi’s tanks and sharpshooters held small areas, included his Bab al-Aziziya headquarters compound and the Rixos hotel, where foreign journalists are staying. The capital’s residents, many of whom cheered the arrival of rebel forces on Sunday, stayed largely indoors Monday as gunfire and explosions echoed through the city.

The rebel’s lightning takeover of much of Tripoli was reminiscent of the U.S. military’s invasion of Baghdad in 2003. It has military strategists wondering if Gadhafi planned the kind of tactical retreat that saw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein vacate the capital to invading forces, giving his loyalists time to regroup and launch a brutal insurgency that continues today.

“The fight ahead might not be quite as easy as it looked yesterday,” said Christian Leuprecht, assistant professor of defence policy at Royal Military College of Canada, referring to Gadhafi loyalists who likely believe “their only option is to fight to the death.”

“They know that if they throw in the towel, their heads will roll,” added Leuprecht, also a political scientist at Queen’s University.

There are ominous signs. Pro-Gaddafi forces fired a suspected Scud missile from near their stronghold city of Sirte, US defence officials told Reuters news agency. No other details were provided.

Abdel-Jalil promised to give Gadhafi a “fair trial with all legal guarantees” if captured. Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, urged Gadhafi to end the bloodshed. But “Brother Leader,” as Gadhafi is known, has given no indication he’s prepared to end the six-month-long civil war.

His defiant audio messages late Sunday raised the possibility of a last-ditch fight over the capital. Gadhafi called on supporters to march in the streets and “purify” the city of “the rats.”

Gadhafi’s former right-hand man, who defected last week to Italy, said the longtime leader would not go easily.

“I think it’s impossible that he’ll surrender,” Abdel-Salam Jalloud said in an interview broadcast on Italian RAI state radio, adding that, “He doesn’t have the courage, like Hitler, to kill himself.”

Leuprecht, who teaches military strategy to Canadian military officers, speculated that Gadhafi’s “best bet” is to “create so much chaos in Tripoli so he can slip out of the capital.”

Leuprecht credited the rebels’ quick takeover of much of the capital to a pincher-like strategy that saw them attack from all sides, including an amphibious assault by forces landing at the city’s port. “It’s a classic maneuver against forces that are heavily dug in,” he said.

NATO warplanes had been weakening Gadhafi forces for months with targeted bombings. Shortly before the rebel sprint to Tripoli, the U.S. began giving NATO more information from satellite imagery and armed drones on the location and capabilities of Gadhafi’s forces, U.S. officials told the Washington Post.

Leuprecht is convinced that special forces from NATO countries were also on the ground training rebel fighters, transforming them from a rag-tag group into the effective fighting force that took over much of Tripoli in a flash. “The question is, to what extent were Canadian special forces involved in the training,” he said.

Judging by the lack of looting and revenge killings so far, Leuprecht believes the rebels have also been trained to win over the hearts and minds of Tripoli residents.

Indeed, at his press conference in Benghazi, Abdel-Jalil, the rebel leader who was Gadhafi’s justice minister until joining the revolt in February, called 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.”

Rebel fighters from the west swept over 30 kilometres in a matter of hours Sunday, taking town after town and overwhelming a major military base as residents poured out to cheer them. At the same time, Tripoli residents secretly armed by rebels rose up.

When rebels reached the gates of Tripoli, the special battalion entrusted by Gadhafi with guarding the capital promptly surrendered. The reason: Its commander, whose brother had been executed by Gadhafi years ago, was secretly loyal to the rebellion, a senior rebel official, Fathi al-Baja, told the Associated Press.

Questions remain about the future unity of rebel forces, held together so far by their hatred of Gadhafi and his regime. Some observers wonder if tensions will arise from the fact that the key military advances came from rebel forces in the west of the country, yet the political power is in the hands of the Transitional Council based in the east.

Libya is on the verge of becoming the third Arab country to overthrow repressive regimes, after Tunisia and Egypt did so earlier this year. In Syria, President Bashar Assad has unleashed a bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, triggering international calls for him to step down.

Outside of Tripoli, almost all of eastern and western Libya, including important oil refineries, is under rebel control. Only the city of Sirte, Gadhafi’s home town, is reportedly still fully under the colonel’s control.

Obama described the situation in Tripoli as fluid, with Gadhafi loyalists still posing a threat.

“But this much is clear: the Gadhafi regime is coming to an end and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people,” he said.

Frozen assets to help rebels

Latest news developments:

  •  Britain said its frozen Libyan assets would soon be released to help the country’s rebels establish order; France announced plans for an international meeting next week; and Italy sent a team to the rebels’ base of Benghazi to help plan reconstruction and the restoration of oil and natural gas production.
  • Scottish officials overseeing the parole of a Libyan man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing say they want to contact him now. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was freed on Aug. 20, 2009, after prison doctors said he had cancer and incorrectly estimated he had only three months to live. The council says it wants to ensure it can continue to contact Megrahi in the same way it has for the past two years, given the fighting in Tripoli.
  • UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said his special adviser Ian Martin and special envoy Abdelilah Al-Khatib will travel to Doha, Qatar, to meet with the rebels’ National Transitional Council.

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