Nick Meo – Telegraph.co.uk August 21, 2011
Gunfire, anti-aircraft fire and explosions rang out across the city on Saturday night as rebel commanders hailed the start of an attack on the dictator’s final stronghold.
Residents reported fighting in neighbourhoods in the north, east and south-west of the city and said rebels were in the streets, although the Libyan government insisted the capital was “safe and stable”.
Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman, said: “The revolution from inside Tripoli has officially started in many parts … of Tripoli, and is expected to spread to all of Tripoli.”
But in a typically defiant audio message broadcast on state television early on Sunday, Col Gaddafi claimed to have repelled the rebels in the city.
“Those rats … were attacked by the masses tonight and we eliminated them,” he said, adding that rebel activity in Tripoli had amounted to little more than “fireworks”. He called on his supporters to mass against the rebels and win back the towns that had fallen to them.
But a British nurse working in Tripoli told the BBC that it had been a “horrific night” of fighting in the capital.
Colonel Fadlallah Haroun, a rebel military commander in Benghazi, claimed the fighting marked the beginning of an assault on the capital co-ordinated with Nato forces.
Col Haroun said that weapons were assembled and sent by tugboats to Tripoli on Friday night.
“The fighters in Tripoli are rising up in two places at the moment – some are in the Tajoura neighborhood and the other is near the Matiga airport,” he told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
A senior rebel official said the “next hours are crucial” and claimed many pro-Gaddafi units had fled.
“The zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the NTC, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
“There is co-ordination with the rebels in Tripoli. This was a pre-set plan. They’ve been preparing for a while. There’s coordination with the rebels approaching from the east, west and south.”
Mr Ghoga said Nato warplanes were launching raids to distract Col Gaddafi’s forces. “The next hours are crucial. Many of their (pro-Gaddafi) brigades and their commanders have fled.”
A Libyan government spokesman admitted that “armed people sneaked into Tripoli” but claimed they had been dealt with. They said the rebels attacked in “small groups of a few dozen”.
While the precise scale of Saturday night’s unrest was unclear, rebel advances on Tripoli in the past few days have already heaped unprecedented pressure on Gaddafi.
The six-month conflict took a dramatic turn last week when rebels suddenly seized the coastal city of Zawiyah just 30 miles west of the capital.
Meanwhile in Zintan, the rebel headquarters town in the western mountains, streams of red tracer fire lit up the night sky as a rumour spread that Gaddafi and his hated sons had quit.
Hundreds gathered in Zintan’s centre at about 10pm on Saturday as fighters, old men and even young boys fired thousands of rounds into the air amid a joyous outpouring of excitment.
“It is a victory for us if he has gone,” said Yusuf Al-Hamadi, a student, aged 23. “But I cannot believe it yet.”
Walid Alsuuni, a student from Zintan aged 29, said: “The report is that Gaddafi and his sons have escaped outside Libya. They have gone and we are free. If it is true, this means that the war is over and peace will return to Libya.”
However Libya’s Information Minister, Moussa Ibrahim, said Gaddafi remained the leader of the Libyan people and insisted the capital was well-defended.
In comments broadcast on state television, Ibrahim renewed a call to rebels to surrender, saying they would be forgiven even if “they have killed our relatives”.
“I ensure Libyans that Gaddafi is your leader … Tripoli is surrounded by thousands to defend it,” he said.
Even as the rebels appeared to be closing in on the capital abd rumours swirled again that his father may have fled the country already, Col Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam said the regime would not “abandon the fight”.
“We have a long breath. We are in our land and in our country. We will resist for six months, one year, two years … and we will win,” he said.