Libya: Rebels edge closer to Tripoli

Monday, August 22, 2011

2009 file photo of Muammar Gaddafi.
Image: U.S. Navy.

Libyan rebels edged closer to the capital city of Tripoli on Sunday to help fellow mutineers inside the city who declared a final clash with leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Following a night marred with gunfire, the rebels said that they controlled a handful of Tripoli's localities. With the rebels within about 25 km of Tripoli, Gaddafi's hold on power looks fragile. He labelled the rebels, who had been fighting for the past six months, as "rats" and said that he would not yield to their demands.

A coordinated revolt that rebels had been secretly planning for months saw gunfire across Tripoli, instantly after Muslim clerics called people onto the streets. The revolution, combined with rebels advancing to the capital's periphery, appears to signal the critical chapter in the "Arab Spring" uprising, which is in its sixth-month now.

"The rebels may have risen too early in Tripoli and the result could be a lot of messy fighting," said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya. "The regime may not have collapsed in the city to quite the extent they think it has."

The rebels' advance toward the city was quick, and the mutineers have halved the distance between them and the capital. Government forces put up a brief fight at the village of Al-Maya, leaving behind a burned-out tank, and some torched cars. On their way to Tripoli, the rebels paused long enough and filled some walls with graffiti, one reading: "We are here and we are fighting Gaddafi."

In Benghazi, the rebels' main stronghold and the genesis of the revolt, a senior official said everything was going according to plan. "Our revolutionaries are controlling several neighborhoods and others are coming in from outside the city to join their brothers at this time," said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the rebel National Transition Council.

Gaddafi — in hiding since the NATO attacks on Libya in June — said in an audio recording broadcast late yesterday that he had no intention of succumbing to the rebellion. A spokesman for Gaddafi, Moussa Ibrahim, in a briefing for foreign reporters echoed the message of defiance and said: "The armed units defending Tripoli from the rebels wholeheartedly believe that if this city is captured, the blood will run everywhere; so they may as well fight to the end."

Those rats ... were attacked by the masses tonight and we eliminated them

—Muammar Gaddafi

Is the revolt premature?

"We hold Mr. Obama, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Sarkozy morally responsible for every single unnecessary death that takes place in this country," he added, referring to the leaders of NATO members, the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

Underground rebel cells in the capital had been following detailed plans developed months ago and had been waiting for a signal to start. The signal was "iftar" – the moment when Muslims who observe the holy months of Ramadan break their daily fast. Imams started broadcasting their message from the loudspeakers of mosques and minarets.

A rebel activist in the city said pro-Gaddafi forces had put snipers on the rooftops of buildings around Bab al-Aziziyah, Gaddafi's compound, and on the top of a nearby water tower.

State television flashed a message urging citizens not to allow rebels to hide on their rooftops. "Agents and al Qaeda members are trying to destabilize and sabotage the city. You should prevent them from exploiting your houses and buildings, confront them and cooperate with counter-terrorism units, to capture them," it read.