Tripoli, Libya – NATO was reported on Thursday to be providing significant support in the hunt for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi as rebels traded fire with their adversaries in Tripoli and faced continued challenges from loyalists far beyond the capital.
There were reports, too, that the bullet-riddled bodies of more than 30 pro-Qaddafi fighters had been found at a military encampment in central Tripoli. At least two were bound with plastic handcuffs, indicating they had been executed, Reuters reported.
Five of the dead were found at a field hospital, one strapped to a gurney in an ambulance with an intravenous drip still in his arm, Reuters said.
With their forces closing in on one of Colonel Qaddafi’s last bastions of support in his birthplace in Surt on Wednesday, the rebels claimed breakthroughs on other fronts, saying their fighters had started battling for Sabha, another of the colonel’s strongholds in the south, and in Zuwarah in the west. Cranking up the pressure, Libyan businessmen put together a $1.7 million bounty for Colonel Qaddafi’s capture — dead or alive.
But news reports on Thursday suggested fierce, continued resistance by pro-Qaddafi forces. In one episode, according to The Associated Press, loyalist militias ambushed opposition fighters advancing toward the town of Bin Jawad some 350 miles southeast of Tripoli, killing at least 20. There were also reports that pro-Qaddafi troops had launched barrages of missiles from Surt itself.
Later, The A.P. said, an intense gun battle erupted outside the Corinthia hotel housing many foreign journalists here, with rebels firing machine guns and an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck towards foes holed up in nearby high-rise buildings.
The rebels tried to enter the hotel so they could get on the roof for a better vantage point, The A.P. said, but hotel staff persuaded them to leave.
“This is not over yet,” said Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain, which has played leading diplomatic and military roles in the effort to end Colonel Qaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship. “There are huge numbers of weapons out there and some thousands of forces are continuing to fight for a regime that is finished,” he said, speaking of loyalist resistance in the south of Tripoli and in Surt.
With the defiant and elusive Colonel Qaddafi still at large, Britain’s defense secretary, Liam Fox, said publicly on Thursday that NATO was trying to help the rebels locate him, apparently breaking from the frequent Western assertion that the alliance’s role is limited under its United Nations mandate to protecting civilians.
“I can confirm that NATO is providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets” to the insurgents “to help them track down Colonel Qaddafi and other remnants of the regime,” Mr. Fox told Sky News.
But he withheld comment on a report in The Daily Telegraph that British special forces on the ground were involved in the hunt for Colonel Qaddafi. He also said there were “absolutely no plans” to commit British ground forces to Libya in the future.
In diplomatic and financial terms, the rebel cause seemed to be facing a setback after South Africa refused to endorse a United States effort at the United Nations Security Council to unblock frozen Libyan funds worth $1.5 billion for the rebels. The impasse provoked sharp exchanges with the rebels’ Western allies.
In London, Mr. Fox himself castigated South Africa on Thursday for failing to show the same solidarity as the world showed to opponents of apartheid.
“I think there will be huge moral pressure on South Africa,” Mr. Fox said on the BBC. “They wanted the world at one point to stand with them against apartheid. They now need to stand with the Libyan people.”
Later, Mr. Hague, the foreign secretary, said South Africa had agreed to endorse the release of $500 million to meet humanitarian needs after Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned President Jacob Zuma to discuss the issue.
Efforts to unblock Libyan government funds, frozen initially to bring pressure on Colonel Qaddafi, seemed to be gathering pace on Thursday. Mahmoud Jibril, the de facto rebel prime minister, continued a European tour to seek the release of billions of dollars of assets, meeting in Milan on Thursday with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, which has long had close economic ties with Libya, a former colony. Mr. Berlusconi said later that Italy would unfreeze some $505 million in Libyan assets. Mr. Jibril met on Wednesday in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The quest for an injection of cash coincides with reports of ever-increasing shortages of essential supplies in Libya.
South Africa’s United Nations ambassador, Baso Sangqu, told reporters that his government was very concerned about the humanitarian situation there but, before agreeing to a broader release of frozen assets, wanted to await the outcome of an African Union meeting Thursday to discuss recognition of the fledgling rebel administration, The A.P. reported.
Many African nations, long the recipients of Colonel Qaddafi’s largesse, have not so far recognized the rebels. South Africa’s President Zuma, has been at the forefront of African efforts to broker a ceasefire on terms favorable to Colonel Qaddafi, but those efforts have produced no visible results, beyond souring relations with the West.
According to South African news reports on Thursday, Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy president, has gone so far as to suggest that NATO commanders should be investigated for war crimes in the Libyan conflict. “We know they are attempting to create the impression that the rebels are acting on their own in their attacks in Tripoli,” he was quoted as telling Parliament on Wednesday, “but there are clear links and co-ordination.”
In a sign of continued confusion on the ground, a ship sent by the International Organization for Migration to pluck migrant workers to safety finally docked on Thursday after days of waiting offshore, but it was not clear whether the port area was sufficiently secure for the migrants to reach the vessel, according to Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization in Geneva.
If it takes place, she said, the rescue will be the first organized evacuation from Tripoli since many governments sent ships and planes to help foreigners leave Libya when the crisis erupted in February. It was not clear how many migrants could be rescued since the ship, which sailed from Benghazi earlier this week, was itself running low on supplies, Ms. Pandya said in a telephone interview.
Another vessel sent to evacuate 24 foreigners from Tripoli has returned to its home port in Malta with only the crew after fighting in the Libyan capital made the operation too risky, The A.P. reported.
Sporadic firefights continued in Tripoli on Wednesday, a sign that control of the city could not be claimed by either side. In a show of strength, the rebels flooded the city’s thoroughfares with the mud-splattered trucks of their fighting brigades. In another sign of the power shifts under way, Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists abruptly released more than 30 foreign journalists they had held captive in the Rixos Hotel here. Over the weekend, they were taken captive at gunpoint as the rebels advanced on the capital and left in the Rixos.
“Rixos crisis ends. All journalists are out!” Matthew Chance, a CNN correspondent, posted on Twitter as he and the others were allowed to leave the hotel with the aid of Red Cross workers who took them away.
Later in the day, the elation was tempered with word that four Italian journalists were abducted and their driver killed outside of Tripoli, in territory nominally under rebel control. Italian consular officials said the journalists, abducted by unknown gunmen, were being held by Qaddafi loyalists in an apartment near Bab al-Aziziya, Colonel Qaddafi’s captured compound and residence.
On Thursday, the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on its Web site that the four journalists had been freed by two Libyans who released them from the Tripoli apartment where they were being held. Details of their escape remained unclear, the Milan-based newspaper said. Two of the journalists worked for Corriere della Sera, while the others were reporters for La Stampa and Avvenire newspapers.
“I am fine now,” said Domenico Quirico of La Stampa, according to the Web posting. “An hour ago, I thought I was dead.”
In the eastern city of Benghazi, the base of the rebel uprising, the head of the rebel Transitional National Council told a news conference on Wednesday that Libyan businessmen had contributed two million dinars, about $1.7 million, for the capture of Colonel Qaddafi dead or alive.
“We fear a catastrophe because of his behavior,” the rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, told reporters there. The rebel leaders in Benghazi also called on loyalists in Surt, more than 200 miles east of Tripoli, to join them, and said they had directed rebel fighting units to close in on Surt from Misurata in the west and the port city of Ras Lanuf in the east.
The rebel military units from Misurata, which have emerged as the opposition’s most able fighters, have encountered little resistance. But there were reports on Wednesday that rebel brigades approaching from the east were stalled in Bin Jawwad, a hamlet that has tripped up the rebels during previous attempts to advance on Surt.
Elsewhere, though, there were signs of loyalist disarray. Al Arabiya television reported that the rebels had taken control of an army base in Zuwarah, a coastal city about halfway between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. There was no immediate confirmation of the report about the base, Mazraq al-Shams, which had been heavily contested for days. But there were news reports on Tuesday night that the Tunisian authorities had closed the main border crossing with Libya because of fighting in the Zuwarah area.
NATO warplanes were heard over the skies in Tripoli in the morning and later in the evening on Wednesday, striking unspecified targets in a bid to strike a fatal blow to Colonel Qaddafi’s lingering loyalists. Many citizens stayed at home as rebels blasted the skies with volleys of celebratory gunfire, though more shops could be seen opening and more cars seemed to be on the road. In a sign of the changed atmosphere, hundreds of journalists on Wednesday moved into high-rise hotels that a day or two before would have been easy targets for snipers. Farther south, though, the two sides continued to fight over several neighborhoods, including Abu Salim and Bab al-Aziziya, the former Qaddafi compound that was still not completely under rebel control.
It remained unclear when the leaders of the rebel council would transfer their operations from Benghazi to Tripoli, as they have said they plan to. One of their leaders, Ali el-Essawi, Mr. Jibril’s acting deputy, who was based in Benghazi, took a room in a guest house earlier in the week in Zawiyah, 50 miles from Tripoli.
Kareem Fahim reported from Tripoli, Rick Gladstone from New York and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by David D. Kirkpatrick from Tripoli, Steven Erlanger from Paris, Seth Mydans from Moscow, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, and Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations.