TRIPOLI, Libya - (AP) - Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed MoammarGadhafi's compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolicheart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops,looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besiegeddictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi'spower, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. Butwith Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for - andgunbattles flaring across the nervous city - the fighters cannotdeclare victory.
Hours after the battle erupted, a pro-Gadhafi TV channel quotedhim as saying he retreated from his Tripoli compound in a"tactical move" after 64 NATO airstrikes turned it to rubble.Al-Rai TV said Wednesday it would air the comments in full andreported an excerpt in which the leader of Libya's unravelingregime vowed his forces would resist "the aggression with allstrength" until either victory or death.
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for fivehours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns. They killed some of those who defendedthe compound and hauled off thousands of rifles, crates of weaponsand trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
"We're looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," saidSohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikovrifle.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflagewith a rocket-propelled grenade slung over one shoulder and aKalashnikov over the other, said the rebels believed Gadhafi wasinside the compound but hiding underground.
"Wasn't he the one who called us rats? Now he is the ratunderground," he said.
Shafiya said he felt "an explosion of joy" to be standinginside Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital after a lightning-quickrebel advance. He had left the rebel-held western city of Misratajust two days earlier.
"I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi'shouse," Shafiya said, choking up with emotion. "Many of myfriends have died and now all of that meant something."
Tripoli's new rebel military chief, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, said atnightfall that a small area of the vast compound was still underthe control of regime fighters and heavy shooting was heard acrossTripoli toward midnight.
The atmosphere in the compound was a mix of joyful celebrationand tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles, and theboom of mortars and the crackle of gunfire was constant. Rebelschanted "Allahu akbar" or "God is great" and on loudspeakersthey cried: "Al-Hamdullilah," or "Thank God."
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gatesand threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. Ahostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until onerebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Insidethe walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters - one with a gapinghead wound from a gunshot - were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi andkicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilantcomrades danced and yelled around him. Fighters with long beardshugged each other and flashed the "V" for victory sign. Otherscarried injured rebels to ambulances.
A fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi's home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many fiery speeches from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television six months ago, at the beginning of the uprising, mocking his opponents and saying his supporters would "purify Libya inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley."
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
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