Tripoli, Libya – Rebel fighters flooded into Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sprawling compound on Tuesday, overwhelming what remained of its defenses and running pell-mell through the grounds, as the crackle of gunfire and rumble of explosions spread across a confused and wary Libyan capital in spasms of renewed fighting.
Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera showed dozens of rebel fighters on foot and in pickup trucks moving quickly into the Bab al-Aziziya compound, where smoky fires shrouded the landscaped palms and multistory buildings of what the rebels have described as Colonel Qaddafi’s last hideout. Many of the rebels were searching the buildings room to room.
There was no immediate indication that rebels had complete control of the compound or that Colonel Qaddafi was there, but CNN showed footage of fighters emerging from the compound with what it described as medical files of the Qaddafi family.
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Russian news agencies reported earlier that Colonel Qaddafi had a telephone conversation with the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov. One of Colonel Qaddafi’s eccentric circle of foreign friends, Mr. Ilyumzhinov quoted Colonel Qaddafi as saying he was alive and well in Tripoli. Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, who made a surprise appearance at a hotel with foreign journalists to refute reports of his arrest, also boasted that his father was safe in Tripoli.
They were the first indications of the besieged leader’s location and condition since the rebels swept into Tripoli on Saturday, in what appeared to be a decisive turn in the six-month-old Libya conflict, the most violent of the Arab spring uprisings.
Other video footage and eyewitness reports from elsewhere in Tripolo depicted heavy clashes took place around the international airport, which the rebels had claimed to control.
It was not clear whether the recent rebel gains were the beginnings of a decisive victory or the start of potentially prolonged street fighting for control of the capital. NATO officials in Brussels and London said the alliance’s warplanes were flying reconnaissance and other missions over Libya but declined to confirm some news reports that the planes had bombed the fortified Qaddafi compound in Tripoli.
“Our mission is not over yet,” said Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, at a news conference in Naples, Italy, urging pro-Qaddafi forces to return to their barracks. “Until this is the case we will carry on with our mission.” Asked if the alliance knew where Colonel Qaddafi was, he said: “We don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”
“The situation in Tripoli is still very serious and very dangerous,” Colonel Lavoie said.
He acknowledged that the urban environment in Tripoli, a city of some two million, was “far more complex” for airstrikes, but said the alliance had precision weapons at its disposal to enforce its United Nations Security Council mandate, which is to protect civilians from attack.
While rebel leaders professed on Monday to be making progress in securing Tripoli and planning for a post-Qaddafi government, and international leaders hailed the beginnings of a new era in Libya, the immediate aftermath of the invasion was a vacuum of power, with no cohesive rebel government in place and remnants of the Qaddafi government still in evidence.
Such was the uncertainty that the International Organization for Migration in Geneva said it had delayed a seaborne mission to rescue hundreds of foreigners from Tripoli because “security guarantees and assurances are no longer in place,” said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization. A 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 but would not dock in Tripoli as planned on Tuesday, she said in a telephone interview.
Additionally, Al Arabiya satellite television reported, rebels killed dozens of pro-Qaddafi troops on Tuesday in a convoy from Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown of Surt. There was no independent corroboration of the report. The Pentagon reported late on Monday that its warplanes had shot down a Scud missile fired from Surt.
The BBC reported meanwhile that the Qaddafi-controlled Rixos luxury hotel in central Tripoli, where most foreign reporters are based, had also come under attack on Tuesday, sending some reporters to take cover in a basement. But no further details were available.
“There are still some pockets of resistance,” the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said in a radio interview in Paris, but he said he believed “the fall of Qaddafi is close.” Along with the United States and Britain, France has played a central role in the diplomatic and military campaigns to oust Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Juppé said those efforts still needed time “to get to the end of this operation.”
On the diplomatic front, Oman and Bahrain said on Tuesday that they formally recognized the rebel authorities, following Egypt, which took the same step on Monday, calling the Transitional National Council the “new regime.” Mohammed Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, said that the council would take over the Libyan Embassy in Cairo, and would assume Libya’s seat on the Arab League, which is based in Cairo.
It was not clear if the renewed fighting was linked to the surprise reappearance of Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, whose capture the rebels had trumpeted since Sunday but who walked as a free man to the Rixos Hotel early Tuesday. He boasted to foreign journalists there that his father was safe in Tripoli, his government was still “in control” and that the rebels had been lured into a trap, the BBC and news services reported. The episode raised significant questions about the credibility of rebel leaders, who had claimed to be holding him prisoner.
It was not clear whether he had been in rebel custody and escaped, or was never held at all. Another Qaddafi son, Muhammad, escaped from house arrest on Monday.
With a full beard and wearing an olive-green T-shirt and camouflage trousers, Seif al-Islam took reporters on a drive through parts of the city still under the regime’s control, The Associated Press reported. The tour went through streets full of armed Qaddafi backers, controlled by roadblocks, and into the Qaddafi stronghold neighborhood Bu Slim, The A. P. said.
At Colonel Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound, at least a hundred men were waiting in lines for guns being distributed to volunteers to defend the regime. Seif al-Islam shook hands with supporters, beaming and flashing the “V,” for victory, sign.
“We are here. This is our country. This is our people, and we live here, and we die here,” he told A.P. Television News. “And we are going to win, because the people are with us. That’s why were are going to win. Look at them! Look at them, in the streets, everywhere!”
“We are going to break the backbone of the rebels,” he said, according to The A.P.
On Monday, fighters hostile to the rebels still battled on the streets and rooftops of Tripoli, wounding or killing at least a dozen people. And Colonel Qaddafi’s green flag still flew in parts of Tripoli and over at least two major cities considered strongholds of his tribe, Sabha to the south and Surt on the coast roughly midway between Tripoli and Benghazi.
In a brief address while on vacation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., President Obama recognized both the historic nature of the rebels’ accomplishment and the troubles they face. Saying that the future of Libya “is in the hands of its people,” he cautioned that “there will be huge challenges ahead.” He pledged that the United States would seek to help Libya in its attempt to establish democracy.
Mahmud Nacua, a Libyan rebel representative in London, told reporters that the insurgents would “look under every stone” for Colonel Qaddafi so that he could be brought to trial. This was presumably a reference to charges by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which in June issued arrest warrants for Colonel Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam and Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, accusing them of crimes against humanity.
The struggle to a impose a new order on the capital presents a crucial test of the rebel leadership’s many pledges to replace Colonel Qaddafi’s bizarre autocracy with the democratic rule of law, and it could have consequences across the country and throughout the Arab world.
Unlike the swift and largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan insurrection was the first revolt of the Arab Spring to devolve into a protracted armed struggle, and at times threatened to descend into a civil war of factions and tribes.
A rebel failure to deliver on their promises of justice and reconciliation here in the capital could spur Qaddafi loyalists around Libya to fight on. And an ugly outcome here might discourage strong foreign support for democracy movements elsewhere.
For now, governments throughout the West and the Middle East welcomed the rebels’ victory and pledged to assist them in the transition. The Iraqi government announced Tuesday that it had recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. The European Union said on Monday that it had begun planning for a post-Qaddafi era, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, flew to Benghazi on Tuesday and met with the rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil.
At the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, said he was trying to organize a meeting by Thursday or Friday with regional actors, including the African Union and the Arab League, to help smooth the transition to a new government. He said the United Nations was prepared to help with any request from the Libyans, from writing a new constitution to coordinating humanitarian assistance, he said.
Some rebels speculated that certain tribes who had benefited from Qaddafi patronage, like the Warfalla and the Warshafana, remained hostile to the rebels.
David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported from Tripoli, Libya, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Bryan Denton from Tripoli, Stephen Farrell from Cairo, Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Helene Cooper from Washington, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations and Rick Gladstone from New York.