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Wednesday, August 24,2011

Libyan rebels battle lingering resistance; Gadhafi still in hiding

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

TRIPOLI, Libya - Libyan rebels continued to fight for control of the country Wednesday, clashing with supporters of Moammar Gadhafi near the airport with the help of foreign special forces, as journalists won their release from a hotel in the capital.

Several rockets landed near Tripoli International Airport, one apparently on the runway, and rebel commander Mukhtar al-Akhbar told CNN that four rebel fighters had been found bound and executed nearby.

NATO jets roared overhead amid explosions and automatic gunfire.

Rebels controlled the airport Wednesday but were struggling to capture an area to the east, according to CNN. Rebel leaders told the network they believed Gadhafi loyalists were trying to clear a route for the 69-year-old leader to escape.

Gadhafi's whereabouts remained unknown Wednesday as his nearly 42-year rule appeared to be coming to an end. Clashes also broke out Wednesday at the vast Bab al-Aziziya complex from which Gadhafi ruled and outside the Rixos hotel, where about 40 international journalists had been trapped in recent days.

Soon after, CNN's Matthew Chance announced that the journalists had persuaded armed Gadhafi guards at the hotel to release them. No one was injured, he said. They left in vehicles supplied by the International Red Cross, he said, and were staying at an undisclosed location.

"We're immensely relieved that we're out of there, all of us, and we're essentially driving to our freedom," Chance said. Libyan rebel leaders told Al-Jazeera Arabic television that they controlled 95 percent of the country Wednesday, including the Bab al-Aziziya complex.

"Gadhafi's regime is 95 percent finished; 95 percent of Libya is under rebel control," Col. Abdallah abu Afra, a rebel spokesman, told Reuters. "He who governs Libya is he who controls Bab Aziziya and that is the reality of the matter. For us, Gadhafi is over."

Many of the rebel leaders were in Qatar for talks with Western and Arab envoys about releasing frozen assets and reconstruction aid. The meetings follow appeals by Libya's rebel government, the National Transitional Council, for $2.5 billion to begin rebuilding.

Rebel spokesmen in Benghazi said the council would move its headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli this week. Rebel leaders were also still scrambling to find Gadhafi and his family. A $1.3 million reward for Gadhafi's capture was offered by a Benghazi businessman, who asked not to be identified, Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told Reuters.

"Any of his inner circle who kill Gadhafi or capture him, society will give amnesty or pardon for any crime he has committed," Abdel-Jalil told a news conference Wednesday.

In a local radio broadcast early Wednesday, Gadhafi said he had made a tactical withdrawal from his compound, which he accused NATO of leveling with airstrikes. He vowed to fight to the death. His last audio broadcast had been Sunday. He was rumored to have moved to his tribal stronghold of Sirte farther east along the Mediterranean, or perhaps to a hiding place along the border with Chad or Algeria. Or perhaps he was on his way to Venezuela, some speculated. A longtime acquaintance in Russia said he had received a short telephone call in which Gadhafi said he was still in Tripoli.

The fast-moving rebel takeover plunged the capital into chaos, with celebratory fire from automatic weapons continuing in the streets Wednesday. The red, black and green rebel flag flew over Bab al-Aziziya, which President Ronald Reagan bombed in 1986.

"There is no fear anymore," said Khaled Azwam, a man in his 30s, who sat in his car with his wife and two sleeping children. They were waiting for things to quiet down so they could return home safely. "Gadhafi is almost gone."

The heavy fighting in recent days has taken a toll on the city's civilians. Dr. Fathi Arabi, an orthopedist at Tripoli's Central Hospital, reported between 50 and 100 dead and hundreds wounded at his facility alone by Tuesday afternoon.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose campaign of airstrikes has greatly aided the rebels, reported some continued resistance from Gadhafi loyalists. A senior NATO official told CNN on Wednesday that the war was "not over yet, although it's close."

"We continue to watch for flare-ups from around the country, where there are still going to be pockets of resistance. We are also watching the chemical weapons and Scud missiles to make sure they are not used in the endgame," he said.

Another NATO official said rebels were aided by foreign special forces, especially British forces, who have assisted rebel units by "helping them get better organized to conduct operations," the official said.

Special forces from Britain, France, Jordan and Qatar have traveled with rebel units from towns across Libya as they advanced on Tripoli, the official told CNN. The official, who asked not to be identified, said the troops have helped rebels "improve their tactics."

The explosion of people power showed Libyans' rage at a regime that made them subject to Gadhafi's whim. But it also exposed challenges for both the rebel government in the eastern city of Benghazi, and for Western officials who conducted a bombing campaign that greatly assisted the rebel cause.

Evidence of lawlessness was pervasive Wednesday. Young men armed with assault rifles staffed checkpoints , part of a whole class of newly armed men who may not be willing to hand their weapons over to the authorities when the fighting is all over.

Though Gadhafi is accused of squandering the country's vast oil wealth, oil production ground to a halt during the conflict, and with it the national economy. U.S. and European countries said Tuesday that they were preparing to remove a freeze on billions of dollars in Libyan assets to help rebel authorities restart the economy.


2011 Los Angeles Times

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