CAIRO — Even as images of gleeful rebels overrunning Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's main military compound saturated television screens Tuesday, questions still loomed over Gadhafi's whereabouts, the status of pro-regime holdouts and NATO's role in the effort to secure the country.
Early Wednesday, Gadhafi, speaking on a local Tripoli radio station, which was reported by Al Orouba television and Reuters, said that his withdrawal from Bab al Aziziya, the dictator's main compound and a key symbol of his power, was a "tactical move." The compound had been leveled by 64 NATO air strikes, he said.
Gadhafi did not say where he was speaking from. He vowed "martyrdom" or victory in his fight against NATO.
Al Arabiya television reported early Wednesday that forces loyal to Gadhafi were attacking the city of Ajelat, west of Tripoli, with missiles and tanks, and that dozens of missiles had hit Tripoli near Bab al Aziziya.
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On Tuesday, in scenes reminiscent of the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, rebels looted Bab al Aziziya, clambering onto and giddily spray-painting iconic buildings and statues.
"Oh my God. I was in Gaddafi's room. Oh my God. I'm gonna take this," said a man as he donned a hat and gold chain that purportedly belonged to Gadhafi, in images captured by Britain's Sky News.
The capital remained chaotic and violent, with both rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces claiming control amid ongoing fears of reprisal attacks. Rebels appeared to be consolidating their grip, but the surprise appearance of Gadhafi's son and onetime heir, Saif al Islam, outside a Tripoli hotel early Tuesday morning raised skepticism of the claims of the rebels, who had said they'd captured the son.
Libyan rebels told Al Arabiya on Wednesday that more than 400 people were killed and at least 2,000 were injured in the fight for Tripoli.
Briefing reporters in Naples, Italy, NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said that the alliance was unaware of any rebel attacks on civilians, saying it had "no signs that anti-Gadhafi forces are operating in a manner not consistent with the mandate," a reference to the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing NATO to protect Libyan civilians. But privately, NATO warned the rebel National Transitional Council that it would protect civilians from them if necessary, a NATO official told McClatchy, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing operation.
Relief groups reported that Tripoli residents were fleeing in greater numbers, and Amnesty International warned that prolonged fighting in the capital could create a humanitarian crisis. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator's office in New York said that it had received reports that civilians had been forcibly displaced by fighting and prevented from moving from areas because of the hostilities.
The International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-affiliated group, was forced to delay docking a boat that it had chartered to evacuate 300 migrant workers stranded by the violence because of "poor security conditions at the port" in Tripoli.
"The risk to civilians increases with each day of violence in Tripoli, not just for people caught up in the fighting but also because conditions could become dire if residential areas are affected by the clashes, with food supplies, water and electricity all likely to be hit," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa director.
NATO officials sought to make Gadhafi an afterthought, with Lavoie saying that the military alliance had no interest in searching for him because "he is not a key player anymore." The comments seemed at odds, however, with the devastating blitz of airstrikes that NATO had launched in recent weeks on Bab al-Aziziya, a massive city-within-a-city complex of barracks, offices and Gadhafi's living quarters, which sat in a bunker designed by West German engineers.
Experts cautioned that Libya's ability to form a new government could be hampered if Gadhafi isn't found.
"It's not over until he is over. So long as Gadhafi is still free he can be a rallying point of resistance to the new government," said Mark Perry, a Washington-based military expert. The rebels "made his overthrow the litmus test of success."
Meanwhile, there were reports that pro-Gadhafi fighters had fled to Sirte, his hometown, but it wasn't clear how he could have traveled there, given that all roads there are controlled by the rebels.
Mahmoud Shammam, a member of the rebel council, told CNN in a phone interview that rebels planned to go "peacefully" into Sirte, considered a bastion of Gadhafi support about 200 miles east of Tripoli. He confirmed that the town was among the pockets of territory still outside rebel control.
Shammam said he didn't expect a hostile response from the people of Sirte, but he said rebels were prepared to fight if confronted by Gadhafi loyalists.
"We want Sirte to be one of ours, to join the other cities," he said. "If Gadhafi wants to keep Sirte as a hostage city in their hands, then we'll do everything to prevent civilians from getting hurt, but we'll take it."
The rebel council pushed ahead with its plans to form a government, with rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani telling the Al Jazeera satellite network that it planned to move its headquarters to Tripoli from the eastern city of Benghazi, where it's been based since the uprising began in February. Bani didn't specify a timetable, however.
In Washington, State Department officials said that they were working with the United Nations to unfreeze up to $1.5 billion of U.S.-held assets for the new rebel government. Rebel officials said that they would hold a summit on Wednesday in Qatar, a key ally, to discuss international funding for Libya's reconstruction.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, the dramatic scenes in Tripoli seemed to confirm the rebels' control of a capital Gadhafi had lorded over for 42 years. Rebels stormed Gadhafi's compound with apparent ease, made off with guns and ammunition and began tearing down pictures of Gadhafi.
Live TV footage showed rebel fighters streaming through the imposing gates of Gadhafi's compound on foot or in trucks and SUVs that bore the scars of battle. The mostly young men kicked at statues honoring Gadhafi, and one man hacked away at a sculpture depicting a hand crushing an airplane — commissioned by Gadhafi after the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya.
Lavoie said NATO would continue flying missions over Libya as long as pro-Gadhafi troops weren't confined to their bases and remained a threat to civilians. He said that while NATO was generally aware of rebel operations, he denied that NATO was flying close-air support for the rebels as they fought Gadhafi forces.
"We are not coordinating in a tactical fashion," he said.
Shammam told CNN that rebel commanders had assured the rebel leadership that they'd order their men to turn in their weapons once hostilities ended. They would then be encouraged to join a new, free Libyan army, he said.
(Allam reported from Cairo, Youssef from Washington. Adam Sege in Washington also contributed.)
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