World leaders on Monday hailed the rebel takeover of Tripoli, urging Muammar Qaddafi to admit defeat, as Libyans around the globe celebrated the veteran strongman’s imminent demise.
The dramatic push to wrest full control of the Libyan capital from Qaddafi loyalists was seen as the end-game in the six-month uprising against his 42-year rule.
While the leaders who supported the uprising stressed that Libya’s fate should be decided by Libyans, pressure was mounting for one of the planet's longest-standing dictators to be dragged in front of a world court.
“This is a hopeful moment, but there are risks ahead,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said as he announced a special Libya summit with the heads of the European Union, Arab League and African Union this week in New York.
“Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement issued overnight from his holiday in Martha’s Vineyard.
The Western-backed rebels, whose grip around Tripoli tightened over the past two weeks before a final offensive on Sunday, said they were still encountering a few pockets of resistance.
The Libyan leader’s son, Seif al-Islam, was captured but Qaddafi himself, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969, has vowed to fight to the death.
“He needs to relinquish power once and for all,” Obama said, the first voice in a barrage of calls for Qaddafi to cut his losses.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country spearheaded support for the rebels and was the first to recognize their administration, condemned Qaddafi’s “irresponsible and desperate calls for the combat to continue.”
Sarkozy urged “forces still loyal to the regime to turn away from the criminal and cynical blindness of their leader, to cease fire.”
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who signed a 2008 friendship treaty that made the former colonial power Libya's top trading partner, urged Qaddafi to “put an end to every pointless resistance.”
European countries such as France and Italy had until early this year spearheaded the return of Qaddafi’s oil-rich Libya--long considered a rogue state by the West over terror links--into the international fold.
The Arab League declared “full solidarity” with the rebels while Libya’s neighbor Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak had to quit power following a popular revolt earlier this year, officially recognized their administration.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also said that “Qaddafi must stop fighting, without conditions, and clearly show that he has given up any claim to control Libya,” but warned against complacency.
NATO, whose aerial bombing played a key role in weakening the regime’s military infrastructure, urged Qaddafi to give his country a chance to rebuild.
It is “time to create a new Libya--a state based on freedom, not fear; democracy, not dictatorship; the will of the many, not the whims of a few,” the alliance head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s spokesman said the onus was now on the rebels “to honor the aspirations expressed by the revolution for the establishment of a democratic, just and prosperous Libya.”
Rumors had intensified in recent days that Qaddafi was preparing to flee like his former neighbor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who flew out of Tunisia under street pressure in January.
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said it was too late to be cutting deals.
“The offers of exile were made in increasingly explicit ways numerous times. The deadline by now has passed, the only path left is that of justice--the justice of the ICC (International Criminal Court),” he said.
While parts of Tripoli still escaped rebel control, notably around Qaddafi’s compound, thousands of Libyans at home and abroad could not contain their joy.
In the city of Benghazi, the western rebel stronghold, tens of thousands poured into the streets overnight.
While some solemnly but joyously shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), others opted for insulting the flamboyant 69-year-old army colonel, who at times sported a sort of Afro-style hairdo, shouting “no more curly hair.”
In Washington, more than 100 people gathered in front of the White House, chanting: “Libya is free.”
Qaddafi “has become, for all intents and purposes, part of Libya’s past,” said the US administration’s top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman.
In a number of Libyan embassies opposition supporters lowered the Qaddafi regime’s all-green flag and hoisted the rebellion’s colors and burned Qaddafi portraits.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an old Qaddafi ally, was a lone voice of foreign support for the crumbling regime, accusing the West of “destroying Tripoli with their bombs.”
China was measured in its reaction and promised to cooperate with whatever government would take over, while Russia urged any future political dialogue in Libya to take place without foreign interference.
South Africa meanwhile denied rumors it might be a place of exile for a defeated Qaddafi or help him to flee and called for the rapid establishment of “a truly representative and people-centered dispensation” in Libya.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said the violent fall of Qaddafi’s regime “should teach a lesson to everyone.”
The oil market was quick to react, with crude prices tumbling on prospects of output in one of Africa’s top oil producers getting fully back on stream and easing pressure on supply to Europe.