Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Qaddafi Loyalists Strike Back

Gaddafi Son Vows to Crush Rebels

The Associated Press
Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The son and heir apparent of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, resurfaced free and defiant early today a day after rebels claimed to have captured him, boasting in a bizarre reappearance that his father's loyalists still control parts of Tripoli and would crush the rebellion.

Saif al-Islam's sudden - even surreal - arrival at a Tripoli hotel where foreign journalists are staying threw the situation in the capital into confusion.

It underlined the potential for Gaddafi, whose whereabouts remain unknown, to lash back even as his grip on power seemed to be slipping fast.

Rebels say they control the large majority of Tripoli, but yesterday they were still fighting pockets of fierce resistance from regime loyalists firing mortars and anti-aircraft guns.

Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, who was in Tripoli, said the "danger is still there" as long as the elder Gaddafi remains on the run.

He warned that pro-Gaddafi brigades are positioned on Tripoli's outskirts and could "be in the middle of the city in half an hour".

The rebel leadership seemed stunned that Saif al-Islam was free. The leadership's spokesman, Sadeq al-Kabir, had no explanation and could only say: "This could be all lies."

He could not confirm whether Saif al-Islam escaped rebel custody, but he did say that another captured Gaddafi son, Mohammed, had escaped the home arrest that rebels had placed him in a day earlier.

Yesterday, the rebels had said Saif al-Islam was captured, but did not give details on where he was held.

The Netherlands-based International Criminal Court - which indicted Saif al-Islam and his father - had confirmed his capture.

Saif al-Islam, with a full beard and wearing an olive-green T-shirt and camouflage trousers, turned up early this morning at the Rixos hotel, where about 30 foreign journalists are staying in Tripoli under the close watch of regime minders.

Riding in a white limousine amid a convoy of armoured SUVs, he took reporters on a drive through parts of the city still under the regime's control, saying: "We are going to hit the hottest spots in Tripoli."

The tour covered mainly the area that was known to still be under the regime's control - the district around the Rixos hotel and nearby Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi's residential compound and military barracks.

The tour went through streets full of armed Gaddafi backers, controlled by roadblocks, and into the Gaddafi stronghold neighbourhood Bu Slim.

At Bab al-Aziziya, at least a hundred men were waiting in lines for guns being distributed to volunteers to defend the regime.

Saif 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 AP 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!"

When asked about the ICC's claim that he was arrested by rebels, he told reporters: "The ICC can go to hell", and added: "We are going to break the backbone of the rebels."

In Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, the head of the rebel National Transitional Council said the rebels have no idea where Gaddafi is or whether he is even in Tripoli.

"The real moment of victory is when Gaddafi is captured," Mustafa Abdel-Jalil said. An Obama administration official said the US had no indication that Gaddafi had left Libya.

President Barack Obama said the situation in Libya reached a tipping point in recent days after a five month Nato-led bombing campaign. However, he acknowledged that the situation remained fluid and that elements of the regime remained a threat.

The Obama administration official said the US believes 90% of the capital is under rebel control, while regime loyalists still control Sirte and the southern city of Sebha.

Gaddafi's forces remained active, firing off a short-range Scud missile near Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and one of the few remaining cities still under his control, said US military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

It was unclear where the missile landed or if anyone was hurt.

It was only the second Scud missile fired during this year's conflict. On August 15, Libyan government forces launched one near Sirte that landed in the desert outside Brega, injuring no one.

Nato vowed to keep up its air campaign until all pro-Gaddafi forces surrender or return to their barracks.

The alliance's warplanes have hit at least 40 targets in and around Tripoli in the past two days - the highest number on a single geographic location since the bombing started in March, Nato said.

A day after the rebels rode into the city of two million, the situation remained volatile.

Even though rebels claimed they were in control of most of Tripoli, they still appeared to be on the defensive, ducking for cover during frequent clashes with regime fighters.

Stores were shuttered and large areas were lifeless, including the old gold market, in the past a draw for tourists.

Throughout the day, the rebels sent reinforcements to the city from the north, south and south east, and a rebel field commander said more than 4,000 fighters were part of the final push to bring down the regime.

Rebels manned checkpoints on the western approaches to the city, handing out sweets to motorists and inquiring about their destinations.

Intense gun battles erupted throughout the day. At Bab al-Aziziya compound, government tanks emerged from the complex and opened fire at rebels trying to get in, according to the rebel spokesman Mr Abdel-Rahman and a neighbour.

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