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, reportedly staying in the Tajura-Cardiac hospital, east of Tripoli.
Rebels and Tripoli residents waving opposition flags and firing into 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 of Colonel 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 Qaddafi a day earlier.
The whereabouts of Colonel Qaddafi were not immediately known, but a reporter from Tripoli told Al Arabiya TV that he was being treated in the Tajura-Cardiac hospital, east of Tripoli. There were no reports on whether Colonel Qaddafi was undergoing treatment in the hospital or simply taking refuge the facility.
The reporter said rebels had taken control of most of Tripoli neighborhoods. He added Qaddafi loyalists could not be seen in the city.
Opposition fighters captured his 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 with 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 over 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.
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 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.
Paula R. Stern – The Last Day
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