Jubilant rebel fighters swept into the heart of Tripoli as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces collapsed and crowds took to the streets to celebrate what they saw as the rapidly approaching end of his four decades of absolute power.
Rebels waving opposition flags and firing into the air drove into Green Square, a symbolic showcase the government had until recently used for mass demonstrations in support of the now embattled Gaddafi. Rebels immediately began calling it Martyrs Square.
United States President Barack Obama said Gaddafi’s rule was showing signs of collapse and called on him to quit now to avoid further bloodshed.
Laila Jawad (36) who works at a Tripoli nursery, said: “We are about to be delivered from the tyrant’s rule. It’s a new thing for me. I am very optimistic. Praise be to God.”
The rebels made their entrance into the capital driving in convoy through a western neighbourhood.
A rebel spokesperson said the rebels now controlled over 95% of Tripoli.
Two of Gaddafi’s sons were captured by the rebels, who were also reported to have seized the Libyan state radio building in the capital. Gaddafi’s presidential guard units laid down their arms.
Remaining defiant, Gaddafi earlier had made two audio addresses over state television calling on Libyans to fight off the rebels.
“I am afraid if we don’t act, they will burn Tripoli,” he said. “There will be no more water, food, electricity or freedom.”
But resistance to the rebels appeared to have largely faded away, allowing the rebels and their supporters to demonstrate in Green Square.
Libyans kissed the ground in gratitude for what some called a “blessed day”.
Near Green Square youths burned the green flags of the Gaddafi government and raised the rebel flag. One rebel fighter from the Western mountain said: “We are so happy — we made it here without any problems.”
Many Tripoli residents received a SMS from the rebel leadership saying: “God is Great. We congratulate the Libyan people on the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.”
Gaddafi, a colourful and often brutal autocrat who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years, said he was breaking out weapons stores to arm the population. His spokesperson, Moussa Ibrahim, predicted a violent reckoning by the rebels.
“A massacre will be committed inside Tripoli if one side wins now, because the rebels have come with such hatred, such vendetta … Even if the leader leaves or steps down now, there will be a massacre.”
Obama, on vacation in the island of Martha’s Vineyard, said in a statement: “The surest way for the bloodshed to end is simple: Muammar Gaddafi and his regime need to recognise that their rule has come to an end. Gaddafi needs to acknowledge the reality that he no longer controls Libya. He needs to relinquish power once and for all.”
Nato, which has backed the rebels with a bombing campaign, said the transition of power in Libya must be peaceful.
Tripoli falls quickly
After a six-month civil war, the fall of Tripoli came quickly, with a carefully orchestrated uprising launched on Saturday night to coincide with the advance of rebel troops on three fronts. Fighting broke out after the call to prayer from the minarets of the mosques.
Rebel National Transitional Council Coordinator Adel Dabbechi confirmed that Gaddafi’s younger son Saif Al-Islam had been captured. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, which wants Saif along with his father on charges of crimes against humanity, said he should be handed over for trial.
Gaddafi’s eldest son Mohammed Al-Gaddafi had surrendered to rebel forces, Dabbechi told Reuters. In a television interview, the younger Gaddafi said gunmen had surrounded his house, but he later told al-Jazeera in a phone call that he and his family were unharmed.
Only five months ago Gaddafi’s forces were set to crush the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the leader warning then that there would be “no mercy, no pity” for his opponents. His forces, he said, would hunt them down “district to district, street to street, house to house, room to room”.
The United Nations then acted quickly, clearing the way for creation of a no-fly zone that Nato, with a campaign of bombing, used ultimately to help drive back Gaddafi’s forces.
“It’s over. Gaddafi’s finished,” said Saad Djebbar, former legal adviser to the Libyan government.
In Benghazi in the east, thousands gathered in a city-centre square waving red, black and green opposition flags and trampling on pictures of Gaddafi as news filtered through of rebel advances into Tripoli.
Mohammed Derah, a Libyan activist in Tripoli told al-Jazeera: “This is another day, a new page in Libya’s history. We are witnessing a new dawn and a new history of freedom. The regime is finished.”
“We are living historic momments, moments that we haven’t witnessed since we were born, since we came out of our mothers’ wombs,” said We’am Mohanna.
Celebratory gunfire and explosions rang out over the city and cars blaring their horns crowded onto the streets. Overhead, red tracer bullets darted into a black sky.
“It does look like it is coming to an end,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst, Maplecroft. “But there are still plenty of questions. The most important is exactly what Gaddafi does now. Does he flee or can he fight?”
“In the slightly longer term, what happens next? We know there have been some serious divisions between the rebel movement and we don’t know yet if they will be able to form a cohesive front to run the country.”
Gaddafi, in his second audio broadcast in 24 hours, dismissed the rebels as rats.
“I am giving the order to open the weapons stockpiles,” Gaddafi said. “I call on all Libyans to join this fight. Those who are afraid, give your weapons to your mothers or sisters.
“Go out, I am with you until the end. I am in Tripoli. We will … win.”
A Libyan government official told Reuters that 376 people on both sides of the conflict were killed in fighting overnight on Saturday in Tripoli, with about 1 000 others wounded.
A diplomatic source in Paris, where the government has closely backed the rebels, said underground rebel cells in the capital had been following detailed plans drawn up months ago and had been waiting for a signal to act.
That signal was “iftar” — the moment when Muslims observing the holy months of Ramadan break their daily fast. It was at this moment that imams started broadcasting their message from the mosques, residents said.
- February 15-19: Inspired by revolts in other Arab countries, including neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, a rebellion breaks out including in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.
- March 19: With troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi threatening rebel-held Benghazi, French, US and British forces launch UN-mandated air attacks and push them back.
- March 30: Libyan foreign minister Mussa Kussa defects. Dozens of political and military figures follow suit.
- March 31: The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation takes over formal command of the military operation.
- April 20: France and Italy join Britain in sending military advisers to assist the rebels.
- May 1: Gaddafi escapes a Nato air strike, which the regime says kills his youngest son, Seif al-Arab, and three grandchildren.
- June 1: Nato says the operation, originally due to wind up at the end of June, will continue until the end of September.
- June 9: An International Contact Group on Libya meets in Abu Dhabi, and finalises a fund aimed at helping the rebels.
- June 20-21: Gaddafi’s regime says 24 civilians have been killed in Nato air strikes.
- June 27: The International Criminal Court (ICC) issues an arrest warrant for Gaddafi for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
- June 29: France says it has air-dropped weapons to rebel forces.
- July 14: The rebels consolidate their positions in the west, and begin an offensive on the oil town of Brega. Nato dismisses accusations that its attacks have killed more than 1 100 civilians.
- July 15: In Istanbul, the Contact Group designates the rebels as Libya’s legitimate rulers, paving the way for the release of frozen Gaddafi regime assets.
- July 25: Nato says it supported rebels by hitting a military facility, armoured vehicles, tanks and light military vehicles around Brega.
- July 28: Rebel military chief General Abdel Fatah Yunis is assassinated as insurgent fighters pound forces loyal to Gaddafi in the west.
- August 5: The regime denies the death of Gaddafi’s son Khamis in a Nato raid, as announced by rebels.
- August 6: The western town of Bir al-Ghanam falls to the rebels.
- August 8: Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil sacks the entire executive office of his government.
- August 9: Libyan authorities accuse Nato of a “massacre” of 85 villagers in air strikes south of Zliten in western Libya. Nato insists it has no evidence of the civilian deaths.
- August 10: EU widens sanctions against the regime.
- August 15: Rebels say they have seized “most” of Zawiyah, the final hurdle on the road to Tripoli as Kadhafi calls the insurgents “rats” and predicts their demise. The UN chief’s special envoy visits Tunis for talks on Libya’s future. Gaddafi’s deputy interior minister flies out to Cairo.
- August 20: Fighting erupts in Tripoli as rebels close in on the capital after claiming the oil city of Brega, a day after seizing Zawiyah and Zliten.
- August 21: Libyan rebels enter Tripoli from the west, greeted by cheering crowds, witnesses say, and launch an offensive. Gaddafi vows he will not surrender and boasts he will “emerge victorious” in the battle for the capital. Nato says the regime is “crumbling,” while the ICC says Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam is in custody. Senior rebel figure Mahmud Jibril warns there are still pockets of resistance in and around Tripoli, while urging insurgents to act responsibly and avoid taking vengeance.
- August 22: US President Barack Obama says the Libyan “tyrant” must leave now to avoid further bloodshed while calling on the rebels to respect human rights, show leadership, preserve the institutions of the state and move towards democracy. – Reuters, AFP