Jubilant crowds of Libyans gathered in Tripoli’s central Green Square Monday to celebrate a hard-fought victory over the forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who is reportedly in the Tajura-Cardiac hospital, east of Tripoli.
Rebels and Tripoli residents waving opposition flags and firing into the air swept into the square, a symbolic showcase the government had until recently used for mass demonstrations in support of the now embattled Qaddafi. Rebels immediately began calling it Martyrs' Square.
The armed brigades loyal to Mr. Qaddafi quickly melted away as rebel forces from the western mountains entered the capital on Sunday to join local rebel groups who rose up against the ruler a day earlier.
The whereabouts of Mr. Qaddafi were not immediately known, but a reporter from Tripoli told Al Arabiya TV that he was in the Tajura-Cardiac hospital. There were no reports on whether Colonel Qaddafi was undergoing treatment in the hospital or simply taking refuge.
Ibrahim Saad, secretary general of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, told Al Arabiya TV that the whereabouts of Mr. Qaddafi were known to rebels and that an announcement about the matter would likely be made within hours.
The reporter said rebels had taken control of most of the neighborhoods in Tripoli. He added that Qaddafi loyalists were not evident in the city.
Opposition fighters captured Mr. Qaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, who along with his father faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. Another son, Mohammad, was under house arrest.
“It’s over, frizz-head,” chanted hundreds of jubilant men and women massed in Green Square, using a mocking nickname of the curly-haired Colonel Qaddafi. The revelers fired shots in the air, clapped and waved the rebels’ tricolor flag. Some set fire to the green flag of Mr. Qaddafi’s regime and shot holes in a poster bearing the leader’s image.
The startling rebel breakthrough, after a long deadlock in Libya’s 6-month-old civil war, was the culmination of a closely coordinated plan by rebels, NATO and anti-Qaddafi residents inside Tripoli, rebel leaders said. Rebel fighters from the west swept over 20 miles 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 Mr. Qaddafi with guarding the capital promptly surrendered. The reason: Its commander, whose brother had been executed by Colonel Qaddafi years ago, was secretly loyal to the rebellion, a senior rebel official, Fathi Al-Baja, told The Associated Press.
Mr. Fathi Al-Baja, the head of the rebels’ political committee, said the rebels’ National Transitional Council had been working on the offensive for the past three months, coordinating with NATO and rebels within Tripoli. Sleeper cells were set up in the capital, armed by rebel smugglers. On Thursday and Friday, NATO intensified strikes inside the capital, and on Saturday the sleeper cells began to rise up.
Akram Ammar, 26, fled his hometown of Tripoli in March, and on Sunday he was among the rebel fighters pouring back in.
“It is a happiness you can’t describe, but also some fear. It will take us time to clear the entire city. I expect a long time for Libyans to get used to the new system and the new democracy,” he said, dressed in camouflage pants and black shirt and sporting the long beard of a conservative Muslim. “But in the end it will be better.”
The rebels’ leadership council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, sent out mobile text messages to Tripoli residents, proclaiming, “Long live Free Libya” and urging them to protect public property. Internet service returned to the capital for the first time in six months.
The day’s first breakthrough came when hundreds of rebels fought their way into a major symbol of the Qaddafi regime - the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by Qaddafi’s son, Khamis. Fighters said they met with little resistance. They were 16 miles from the big prize, Tripoli.
Hundreds of rebels cheered wildly and danced as they took over the compound filled with eucalyptus trees, raising their tricolor from the front gate and tearing down a large billboard of Mr. Qaddafi. From a huge warehouse, they loaded their trucks with hundreds of crates of rockets, artillery shells and large-caliber ammunition.
One group started up a tank, drove it out of the gate, crushing the median of the main highway and driving off toward Tripoli.
The rebels also freed more than 300 prisoners from a regime lockup, most of them arrested during the heavy crackdown on the uprising in towns west of Tripoli. The fighters and the prisoners – many looking weak and dazed and showing scars and bruises from beatings – embraced and wept with joy.
“We were sitting in our cells when all of a sudden we heard lots of gunfire and people yelling ‘God is great.’ We didn’t know what was happening, and then we saw rebels running in and saying ‘We’re on your side.’ And they let us out,” said 23-year-old Majid al-Hodeiri. He said he was captured four months ago by Qaddafi’s forces crushing the uprising in his home city of Zawiya. He said he was beaten and tortured while under detention.
From the military base, the convoy sped toward the capital.
Mahmoud al-Ghwei, 20, who was unarmed, said he had just came along with a friend for the ride.
“It’s a great feeling. For all these years we wanted freedom and Qaddafi kept it from us. Now we’re going to get rid of Qaddafi and get our freedom,” he said.
Meanhwhile, thousands celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital hundreds of miles to the east. Firing guns into the air and shooting fireworks, they cheered and waved rebel tricolor flags, dancing and singing in the city’s main square.
When rebels moved in, the regime unit guarding the capital, known as the Mohammed Megrayef battalion, surrendered, and its commander ordered its troops to put down their arms. Mr. Al-Baja, the rebel official, said that the commander, Barani Eshkal, had secretly defected earlier to the rebels, embittered by the 1986 execution of his brother, who had joined a coup attempt against Qaddafi.
Eshkal also pointed out to the rebels the hiding place of Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam in a hotel, al-Baja said. Rebel chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil in Benghazi confirmed to the AP that the rebels captured Seif but refused to give details.
In the Netherlands, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said his office would talk to the rebels on Monday about Seif al-Islam’s transfer for trial. “It is time for justice, not revenge,” Moreno-Ocampo told the AP.
Seif al-Islam, his father and Libya’s intelligence chief were indicted earlier this year for allegedly ordering, planning and participating in illegal attacks on civilians in the early days of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters.