Source: Wall Street Journal
Rebel fighters search a captured loyalist soldier on Thursday during fighting in Tripoli’s Abu Salim district, known as a pro-Gadhafi stronghold.
As Libyan rebels head toward Sirte, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stepped up its attacks on the town, the home base of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s tribe.
NATO said Friday it hit a total of 29 armed vehicles in the town on Wednesday. In the early hours of Friday morning, Royal Air Force jets flew from a base in the U.K. to attack a « large headquarters bunker » in the town, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said.
The NATO bombing appeared aimed at paving the way for the rebel advance.
In London, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of Col. Gadhafi’s regime were in Sirte « where they are still continuing to wage war on the people of Libya. » He said NATO would continue to strike at the Gadhafi forces’ military capability.
The recent barrage against Sirte compares with one hit on the town on Tuesday and nothing the day before, when the target was still primarily Tripoli.
Fierce fighting continued in Tripoli late Thursday and rebels retreated under fire from pro-regime soldiers on the road near Col. Gadhafi’s tribal home, as battles continued between rebels and loyalists of Libya’s defiant and elusive leader.
Combat raged at the edges of Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, a sprawling slum in the southern half of the capital that has long been known as a pro-Gadhafi stronghold and where many of his loyalists are believed to have withdrawn as the rebels moved into the capital.
At nightfall, weary rebel fighters returned from the front lines frustrated at their failure to make headway against loyalist forces in the neighborhood. The fierce resistance by pro-Gadhafi troops led some rebels to speculate that Col. Gadhafi or members of his family were hiding there.
With Col. Gadhafi still on the run and vowing to fight to the death, the rebels have struggled to take complete control of the Libyan capital after sweeping into the city on Sunday.
Bursts of gunfire were heard coming from an area near Abu Salim before daybreak Friday, the Associated Press reported. Smoke rose from the area but a rebel at the scene early Friday said the fighting in the district had ended by nightfall Thursday.
Numerous reports also circulated Thursday of mass killings in the capital. The opposition Misrata Military Council said loyalist soldiers tossed hand grenades and fired machine guns at around 140 prisoners at a government detention facility in Tripoli before the loyalists withdrew, killing all but 20 of the prisoners. The report couldn’t be independently verified.
News agencies also reported the discovery Thursday of more than two dozen bodies near Col. Gadhafi’s Tripoli compound of Bab al-Aziziya.
The identities of the dead were unclear, with the Associated Press reporting they were likely pro-Gadhafi activists who were protesting bombings of the compound by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. Other reports called them pro-Gadhafi fighters. Several of the dead had been shot in the head, with their hands tied behind their backs, according to reports.
Also in the capital, a gunbattle broke out in front of a major hotel in the heart of the city where many journalists are staying. The battle raged for much of the afternoon in front of the Corinthia Hotel, one of Tripoli’s best accommodations, with correspondents from several international news organizations trapped inside. Many of the journalists were among those released the day before from a dayslong siege at a different hotel, the Rixos.
The battles underscored how, days after rebel forces marched triumphantly into Tripoli, the battle for Libya is far from over as its leader of more than four decades remains in hiding.
Col. Gadhafi, in a recorded voice message released late Thursday, urged his supporters to « march in the millions to Tripoli to drive away infidels, crusaders, rats and traitors. »
« Don’t be afraid of them [NATO and rebels].…The rebels are few and you are plenty, » a defiant Col. Gadhafi said in his third speech since he appeared to go underground early Tuesday. « Fight them from street to street, and from alley to alley….It is the time for martyrdom or victory, » he said. He urged loyalists not to fear NATO airstrikes. »Those are just sound bombs, » he said.
The brief voice clip was aired by two pro-Gadhafi television broadcasters, Libya’s Al Urubah TV and Syria-based Al Rai TV, which is run by a businessman with ties to Iraqi insurgents.
Earlier Thursday, Col. Gadhafi’s spokesman said the leader is safely in hiding and leading the battle against the Libyan rebels. Moussa Ibrahim said in a phone call to the AP that the longtime dictator was in Libya and his morale was high.
In a major front east of Tripoli, rebels retreated under heavy fire on the coastal road near the strategic oil-port town of Ras Lanuf.
The rebels—who have been attempting to make their way from Libya’s east toward the city of Sirte, where some believe Col. Gadhafi could be—gave back ground they had gained in recent days during their westward push in the direction of Tripoli.
Rebels have said pro-Gadhafi forces armed with medium and heavy weaponry control a slice of the country extending from Sirte, the coastal town that is the home base of Col. Gadhafi’s tribe, southward to Sebha in the interior.
The rebels have vowed to overtake Sirte by force if necessary and link up with fellow fighters from Misrata, another major port city, thereby wresting control of the entire Libyan coast from Col. Gadhafi’s forces.
Emboldened by events in Tripoli, fighters in the east pushed along the coast and grabbed territory that they gained and lost numerous times since March.
The opposition’s interim government, meanwhile, moved forward with efforts to establish political control despite the continuing violence.
The National Transitional Council announced it is moving from the country’s second-largest city of Benghazi in the east to Tripoli.
The head of the Libyan rebel government called on the African Union on Friday to recognize them as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people and warned that a lack of funds could threaten the new rulers’ legitimacy.
Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the National Transitional Council, also renewed a call for the urgent release of frozen Libyan assets, saying the government could face a « legitimacy crisis » if the Libyan people’s demands aren’t met.
Mr. Jibril said the opposition needs the money to pay state salaries and maintain services in Libya, including in areas still under Col. Gadhafi’s control. Funds are also needed for an army and a police force to restore order and confiscate arms, he said.
« If the services expected by the citizens are not met, we may be faced with a legitimacy crisis, » Mr. Jibril told reporters at a joint news conference in Istanbul with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Mr. Jibril arrived in Turkey to attend a meeting Thursday of the so-called Contact Group of some 30 countries leading efforts to stabilize Libya.
By Charles Levinson, Sam Dagher and Alistair Macdonald
—Leila Hatoum, Adam Entous, Peter Wonacott and the Associated Press contributed to this article.