CAIRO — Rebels swept into the heart of the Libyan capital, meeting only sporadic resistance from forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi who were trying to protect a rapidly shrinking stronghold in the face of the insurgent onslaught, NATO airstrikes and uprisings in neighborhoods across Tripoli.
After six months of fighting, it was clear that Gadhafi's loyalists were being pressed hard on multiple and shifting fronts. Rebels advanced from the south, east and west while Muslim clerics urged armed residents in the city and its outskirts to confront the Libyan army.
The whereabouts of the man who has ruled Libya for more than four decades were unknown. Television reports showed jubilant rebel fighters in Green Square, where Gadhafi supporters have held almost nightly rallies during the uprising. Young men in Tripoli stomped on posters of Gadhafi while waving rebel flags in bullet-pocked streets.
It was unclear whether Gadhafi's forces had been overwhelmed or were creating a lull before a counterattack. Poorly trained and undisciplined rebels have made dramatic advances in the past, only to be pushed back by Gadhafi loyalists. U.S. officials cautioned that Gadhafi retained supporters in the military, who could launch vicious urban fighting.
But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Gadhafi's regime was "clearly crumbling," and it urged forces still loyal to him to lay down their arms. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court confirmed rebel reports that Gadhafi's son and onetime heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, had been captured. The court has indicted Gadhafi, Seif al-Islam and Libya's intelligence chief on charges of planning attacks on civilians in the early days of the uprising.
Rebels said another son, Mohammed, had surrendered. Media reports said opposition forces had overrun the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by another son, Khamis. The headquarters, which insurgents looted of weapons and ammunition, is about 15 miles outside the capital. Its loss would be a major strategic setback for the Libyan army and a large symbolic victory for the rebels.
Though Moammar Gadhafi has not been seen in public for weeks, a series of audio broadcasts Sunday added a surreal air to the rebel advance and celebrations in downtown Tripoli. "The tribes must march to Tripoli now to defend and purify it," he told Libyans. "How can you allow Tripoli to be burned?"
The intense pressure on Gadhafi throughout the day led his government to offer a cease-fire, warning that atrocities might occur if the rebel offensive wasn't stopped. But even as that appeal was made, Gadhafi taunted the insurgents as rats, and a newscaster on state television brandished a pistol on air and promised to kill rebels.
The government calls for "an immediate halt of NATO's aggression against our nation and for all parties to sit down and begin a peaceful way out of this crisis," spokesman Musa Ibrahim said at a news conference in Tripoli. "We believe unless the international community heeds this appeal, many people will be killed and terrible crimes will be committed."
Speaking late Sunday night, Ibrahim said Libyan forces were battling the rebels, whom he described as "vengeful, hateful" tribes, across Tripoli in the neighborhoods of Janzour, Gargaresh and elsewhere. "NATO will be held responsible morally and legally for the deaths" occurring that night, he said.
In a mind game of intrigue and deception, each side was claiming the upper hand through much of the day. Opposition forces advancing from the town of Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, retreated after fierce battles. They gathered in Jaddayim and regrouped for another onslaught. Rebel leaders said their supporters had rallied inside the capital as part of a coordinated operation, but the government claimed "armed gangs" had been defeated.
The collaborators with "the West are moving from one town to the next claiming control, but they are not in control, they are escaping like rats," Gadhafi said in an audio broadcast on Libyan television early Sunday. "People are kissing my picture. I am their leader, I am their father."
But rebels claimed that hundreds of Gadhafi loyalists and soldiers had abandoned their posts. They said opposition sympathizers took control of a neighborhood in east Tripoli while residents in other parts of the capital fled food and gas shortages.
Rebels also claimed to have sent fighters, weapons and ammunition by boat from Misurata, a city east of Tripoli that had been cut off and besieged for much of the conflict.
NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie told reporters in Brussels that the fast-moving events were complicating the choosing of targets for airstrikes by the alliance. "There is no longer a traditional front line as we had in other phases of the conflict," Lavoie said.
Operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians, NATO has conducted months of airstrikes to weaken Gadhafi's forces.
"The sooner Gadhafi realizes that he cannot win a battle against his own people, the better — so that the Libyan people can be spared further bloodshed and suffering," the alliance said in a statement late Sunday.
It pledged to work with rebel leaders on a transition to a new government.
U.S. officials said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Barack Obama, who is vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, were receiving regular updates. Obama told reporters that U.S. officials would make a statement when they had full confirmation of the situation on the ground.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has visited Libya twice this year, said the battle between Gadhafi and rebel forces was "nearing the end."
U.S. officials have been worried that Gadhafi's fall could be followed by chaos, potentially including tribal feuding, and they urged anti-Gadhafi groups to begin organizing for a peaceful transition.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam had been seized by rebel special forces and that regime figures should face "justice, not revenge."
Only in recent weeks have the lightly armed rebels capitalized on NATO bombardments of Gadhafi's artillery, tanks and supply routes.
The insurgents have made costly tactical mistakes in the past and have yet to encounter an urban battlefield such as Tripoli, a city of more than 1.6 million that may be booby-trapped and defended by snipers and pro-Gadhafi militias.
But high-level defections have jeopardized Gadhafi's control. Abdel-Salam Jalloud, who helped the Libyan leader rise to power in a 1969 coup, defected in recent days and is reported to be in Rome. Jalloud has influence with the nation's clans and urged Gadhafi's tribe to "disown this tyrant because he will go and you will end up inheriting his legacy."
In a video message broadcast by Al-Jazeera, he added: "It is time to act. ... Overcome fear."
The rebel offensive, a careening parade of mud-splattered pickup trucks and mismatched uniforms, gained momentum a week ago. Insurgents entered Zawiya and pressed into Gharyan, about 50 miles south of the capital. They later captured Zlitan, a strategic coastal town. Those victories squeezed Gadhafi's supply lines. Pressure on the government intensified when rebels stormed the key oil city of Port Brega, about 420 miles east of Tripoli.
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