Libyan rebels battled their way toward Tripoli yesterday to help fighters inside the city who rose up overnight declaring a final showdown with Libyan leaderMuammar Qaddafi.
The Libyan leader dismissed the rebels, fighting since February to topple him, as “rats” and said he would not yield.
In a coordinated revolt that rebel cells had been secretly preparing for months, shooting started on Saturday night across Tripoli moments after Muslim clerics, using the loudspeakers on mosque minarets, called people on to the streets.
The fighting inside Tripoli, combined with rebel advances to the outskirts of the city, appeared to signal the decisive phase in a six-month conflict that has become the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings and embroiled NATO powers.
However, Qaddafi’s fall is far from certain. His security forces did not buckle, the rebels appeared to control only a few neighborhoods of Tripoli and the city is much bigger than anything the mostly amateur anti-Qaddafi fighters, with their scavenged weapons and mismatched uniforms, have ever tackled.
If the Libyan leader is forced from power, there are question marks over whether the opposition can restore stability in this oil-exporting country. The rebels’ own ranks have been wracked by disputes and rivalry.
Rebels said that after a night of heavy fighting, they controlled a handful of city neighborhoods. However, whether they hold on could depend on the speed that rebels elsewhere reach Tripoli.
The closest front line was to the west of the capital, along a highway that traces the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
Rebel fighters returning from the front line said they had taken the town of Jaddaim and that they were now about 20km from Tripoli and approaching the city’s outlying western suburb of Janzour.
In Jaddaim, fighters were celebrating the advance, shouting Allahu Akbar, or “God is great.”
In Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the anti-Qaddafi revolt started and where the rebels have their main stronghold, a senior official said everything was going according to plan.
“Our revolutionaries are controlling several neighborhoods and others are coming in from outside the city to join their brothers at this time,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the rebel National Transition Council.
In an audio recording broadcast late on Saturday, Qaddafi — whose location has been kept a secret since NATO warplanes started bombing government buildings — made clear he had no intention of giving in to the rebels.
“Those rats ... were attacked by the masses tonight and we eliminated them,” Qaddafi said.
The overnight fighting inside the city, while fierce, was not decisive. Rebels said they controlled all or parts of the Tajourah, Fashloom and Souk al-Jumaa neighborhoods.
Yesterday, the two sides appeared to be jockeying for control of rooftop terraces where they could place firing positions.