Tripoli, Libya – Rebel fighters sought to consolidate their hold on Tripoli on Wednesday and continued to hunt down an elusive and defiant Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a day after they crashed through the gates of his fortresslike compound, ransacking its barracks for weapons and carting off mementos of his 42-year dictatorship.
As a reminder that he remained on the loose, Colonel Qaddafi, in an address broadcast early Wednesday on a local Tripoli radio station, called his retreat from the compound “tactical,” several news reports said.
He blamed months of NATO airstrikes for bringing down his compound and vowed “martyrdom” or victory in his battle against the alliance. Urging Libyan tribes across the land to march on the capital, he said: “I call on all Tripoli residents, with all its young, old and armed brigades, to defend the city, to cleanse it, to put an end to the traitors and kick them out of our city.”
“These gangs seek to destroy Tripoli,” he said, referring to the rebels, who began taking control of Tripoli late on Sunday. “They are evil incarnate. We should fight them.”
There were few indications that the rebel victory was complete. Journalists in the city said they heard the sound of renewed NATO airstrikes against unspecified targets early on Wednesday and many citizens stayed at home as rebels blasted the skies with volleys of celebratory gunfire. Dozens of reporters and other foreigners remained trapped in a luxury hotel in Tripoli, held there by pro-Qaddafi gunmen as news reports spoke of fierce fighting around it hours after the rebel capture of the Qaddafi compound. A relief ship sent to pluck foreigners to safety was unable to dock because “the situation is still too volatile” around the port, a relief official said.
As crowds cheered into Tuesday night in the city’s Green Square, now Martyrs’ Square, some Qaddafi militiamen were still fighting around the city, and the rebels acknowledged that even the Qaddafi compound, called Bab al-Aziziya, was not yet under their full control. Still, the storming of the compound represented the fruition of an oft-repeated rebel vow: “We will celebrate in Bab al-Aziziya,” the ultimate seat of power in the Qaddafi government. The conquest was spearheaded by hundreds of experienced fighters from the port city of Misurata, who developed into some of the rebels’ best organized and most effective units after months of bitter fighting with elite loyalist forces.
Jubilant rebel fighters made off with advanced machine guns, a gold-plated rifle and Colonel Qaddafi’s golf cart. One took the distinctive fur that Colonel Qaddafi wore in his first public appearance after the uprising began six months ago.
While the pillaging of Bab al-Aziziya was the most conclusive evidence yet that Colonel Qaddafi’s rule was at an end, it was not yet clear how much his fall would do to pacify Qaddafi partisans who may feel they have much to lose from the rebels’ ascendance, especially while their leader remains at large.
As diplomacy accelerated in the new dynamics surrounding the conflict, the French government announced that President Nicolas Sarkozy would meet Mahmoud Jibril, the rebel prime minister, later Wednesday in Paris. France was the first country to recognize the Benghazi-based rebels and played a central role in the NATO air campaign along with the United States and Britain.
President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, whose country has opposed the NATO effort, raised the possibility that Moscow might recognize the rebel administration, but called for negotiations to end the fighting. “Despite the successes of the rebels, Qaddafi and his supporters still have a certain influence and military potential,” he told journalists after meeting in Siberia with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. “In essence, there are two powers in the country.”
The rebels must consolidate their control of the country in order for Russia to consider recognizing their government, he said.
“If the rebels have enough strength and opportunities to unite the country for a new democratic start, then naturally, we will consider establishing relations with them,” Mr. Medvedev said.
In a further maneuver, China on Wednesday urged a “stable transition of power” in Libya and said it is in contact with the rebels Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, Reuters reported, suggesting that Beijing’s allegiance has shifted. China “respects the choice of the Libyan people and hopes for a stable transition of power,” Mao Zhaoxu, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
“We have always attached significance to the important role of the National Transitional Council in solving Libya’s problems, and maintain contact with it,” Mr. Ma said. China had maintained close economic ties with the Qaddafi regime and withdrew tens of thousands of its workers at the start of the conflict, news reports said. It remained unclear on Wednesday when the leaders of the rebel council would transfer their operations from Benghazi to Tripoli, as they have said they plan to. Rebel leaders plan to meet in Qatar on Wednesday with senior envoys from the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Reuters reported.
Rebel leaders acknowledged Tuesday that their forces in Tripoli are not under any unified command. Some are simply Tripoli residents who have taken up guns, and have little or no military experience. And rebels from the western mountains fight in independent brigades from each town or tribe, spraying its name — “Zintan” or “Nalut” — as they go.
Rebel military commanders said that aside from the area around Bab al-Aziziya, they believed that only two other neighborhoods of Tripoli remained under the control of Qaddafi loyalists. One is Al Hadba. The other is Abu Salim, which includes the Rixos Hotel. A group of journalists have been trapped there for days, first by Colonel Qaddafi’s guards and now by gunfire outside. On Tuesday the BBC reported that the hotel had come under attack as well, forcing the journalists to take shelter.
“It’s desperately hard to see how we will get out,” Matthew Price, a BBC reporter in the hotel, said in a broadcast on Wednesday, recounting how an armed guard had raised his rifle to prevent a cameraman among the 35 trapped journalists and other foreigners from leaving. After five days of being held there, he said, food and water supplies were running out, electric power was sporadic and cable and satellite reception was “all off.”
Mr. Price said the foreigners included an American congressman, but did not identify him by name. The journalist also said he believed there may be pro-Qaddafi marksmen on the roof. Later, the BBC reported that fierce but confused fighting had erupted around the hotel with combatants firing small arms, anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons.
Gunmen and snipers hostile to the rebels also continue to operate in many other neighborhoods, and doctors at clinics and, on Tuesday, hospitals around Tripoli reported hundreds of gunshot wounds over the last 72 hours, even in neighborhoods rebels consider well controlled.
The death toll was impossible to assess. It is also unclear how many rebel fighters are in Tripoli, in part because so many young men from the city are now brandishing automatic rifles. The rebels from the western mountains number a few thousand in tribal bands of 600 or more, and the Misurata fighters were said in unconfirmed reports to number around 500.
Rebel leaders struggled to explain how their leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi misled the world two days ago when they falsely reported the capture of Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, one of the most powerful figures in his father’s government. He embarrassed the rebels early Tuesday by walking freely into the Rixos Hotel and boasting that his father was still in control and inside the city.
At a news conference in the Qatari capital, Doha, Mr. Jibril, the rebel prime minister, said it was essentially a misunderstanding, suggesting that Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, had mistaken an early notification of an unconfirmed rumor for an official report of Seif al-Islam’s capture. There was no explanation why the misunderstanding went uncorrected for two days.
The rebels’ reversal about the Qaddafi son’s capture led to some finger-pointing among the rebels. “I learned not to trust the people from Benghazi who are telling me these stories,” said Anwar Fekini, a rebel leader from the western mountains who had repeated the news Monday.
As for the reported capture of another Qaddafi son, Mohammed, Mr. Fekini confirmed reports that he had escaped and acknowledged some responsibility. Mohammed had played little role in the Qaddafi political machine, so Mr. Fekini said he and others agreed to place him under house arrest.
“Unfortunately it was naïve,” he said. “We are too humane to be warriors.”
Rebel officials and others close to Colonel Qaddafi both said Tuesday that they believed that he had not gone far.
“We believe that he is either in Tripoli or close to Tripoli,” Guma el-Gamaty, a spokesman for the rebels leadership, told BBC television. “Sooner or later he will be found alive and arrested — and hopefully that is the best outcome we want — or if he resists, he will be killed.”
In addition to Seif al-Islam’s boast about his father, Russian news agencies reported earlier that Colonel Qaddafi had a telephone conversation with the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, who is in Colonel Qaddafi’s circle of foreign friends. Colonel Qaddafi had told his chess mate that he was alive and well in Tripoli, Mr. Ilyumzhinov reportedly said.
Elsewhere, rebels claimed they continued to edge along the coast from the east, though Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists remain in control of his tribe’s strongholds, Surt on the Mediterranean and Sabha to the south. On Tuesday, rebels seized control of Ras Lanuf, an important oil port.
Even amid the jubilation in Bab al-Aziziya, though, such was the uncertainty about the control of Tripoli that the International Organization for Migration in Geneva said it had delayed a seaborne mission to rescue hundreds of foreigners because “security guarantees and assurances are no longer in place,” said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization.
A Tripoli-bound ship that left the eastern port of Benghazi on Monday would remain at sea until some level of safety for the mission could be assured, she said in a telephone interview. “It’s still lying just offshore and we are still trying to get security guarantees,” Ms. Pandya said on Wednesday. “The situation is still too volatile and security cannot be guaranteed in the port area.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Tripoli, Seth Mydans from Moscow, and Rick Gladstone from New York.