TRIPOLI, Libya – Hundred of Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi’s compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besieged dictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi’s power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for – and gun battles flaring across the nervous city – the fighters cannot declare victory.
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for five hours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled off thousands of rifles, crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on their backs in a frenzy of looting.
“We’re looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now,” said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with a rocket-propelled grenade slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over the other, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is inside the compound but hiding underground.
“Wasn’t he the one who called us rats? Now he is the rat underground,” he said.
Shafiya said he felt “an explosion of joy” to be standing inside Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital after a lightning-quick rebel advance. He had left the rebel-held western city of Misrata just two days earlier.
“I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi’s house,” Shafiya said, choking up with emotion. “Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something.”
Tripoli’s new rebel military chief, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, said at nightfall that a small area of the vast compound was still under the control of regime fighters and heavy shooting was heard across Tripoli toward midnight.
The atmosphere in the compound was a mix of joyful celebration and tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles, and the boom of mortars and the crackle of gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted “Allahu akbar” or “God is great” and on loudspeakers they cried: “Al-Hamdullilah,” or “Thank God.”
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand-new rifles still in their paper wrappings.
Scuffles broke out among rebels pushing and shoving to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine guns and handguns are stored. They came out drenched in sweat from the struggles.
One fighter gleefully blasted rocket-propelled grenades over the compound’s eastern wall, with little idea about what was happening on the other side.
Ali Sameer, a Tripoli resident, stood with three brand-new rifles resting on his legs.
“They are for my friends,” he said. “I don’t even know how to fight.”