(Reuters) – A beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi vowed on Wednesday to fight on to death or victory after jubilant rebels forced him to abandon his Tripoli stronghold in an apparently decisive blow against the Libyan leader’s 42-year rule.
Rebels ransacked Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya bastion, seizing arms and smashing symbols of a ruler whose fall will transform Libya and rattle other Arab autocrats facing popular uprisings.
Gaddafi said the withdrawal from his headquarters in the heart of the capital was a tactical move after it had been hit by 64 NATO air strikes and he vowed “martyrdom” or victory in his six-month war against the Western alliance and Libyan foes.
Urging Libyans to cleanse the streets of traitors, he said he had secretly toured Tripoli.
“I have been out a bit in Tripoli discreetly, without being seen by people, and … I did not feel that Tripoli was in danger,” Gaddafi told loyalist media outlets.
His whereabouts after leaving the compound, perhaps via a tunnel network to adjoining districts, remain unknown, although he appears to have been in Tripoli, at least until recently.
Rebels said fighting was still going on near the Rixos hotel, where armed Gaddafi loyalists have prevented foreign journalists from leaving, and in eastern areas of the city.
A Reuters reporter near the hotel around midday (6 a.m. EDT) on Wednesday heard rifle fire and heavy anti-aircraft guns, which have been used by both sides against ground targets.
Earlier in the morning, a Reuters reporter inside the hotel, Missy Ryan, said food and water were running low. Pro-Gaddafi gunmen who had patrolled the hotel compound were no longer in sight, she said, but it was not clear if they had withdrawn.
Residents remained fearful, with empty streets, shuttered shops and piles of garbage testifying that life is still far from normal in the city of 2 million. Rebels manned checkpoints along the main thoroughfare into the city from the west.
People were defacing or erasing Gaddafi portraits and other symbols in a city where they were once ubiquitous. They painted over street names and renamed them for rebel fighters who had become “martyrs.” Plaques were torn off government offices.
“There are some fights going but hopefully today everything will be over,” one rebel fighter said.
Fighting was reported on Tuesday night in a southern desert city, Sabha, that rebels forecast would be Gaddafi loyalists’ last redoubt. Pro-Gaddafi forces were shelling the towns of Zuara and Ajelat, west of Tripoli, Al-Arabiya TV said.
Omar al-Ghirani, a rebel spokesman, said loyalist forces had fired seven Grad missiles at residential areas of the capital, causing people to flee their homes in panic.
He told Reuters Gaddafi troops had also fired mortar rounds in the area of the Tripoli airport.
“VOLCANO OF LAVA”
The continued shooting suggested the six-month popular insurgency against Gaddafi, a maverick Arab nationalist who defied the West and kept an iron hand on his oil-exporting, country for four decades, has not completely triumphed yet.
A spokesman for Gaddafi said the Libyan leader was ready to resist the rebels for months, or even years.
“We will turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents,” Moussa Ibrahim said, speaking by telephone to pro-Gaddafi channels.
Rebel leaders would not enjoy peace if they carried out their plans to move to Tripoli from their headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, he said.
But Gaddafi was already history in the eyes of the rebels and their political leaders planned high-level talks in Qatar on Wednesday with envoys of the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates on the way ahead.
Another meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Istanbul.
China urged a “stable transition of power” in Libya and said on Wednesday it was in contact with the rebel council, the clearest sign yet that Beijing has effectively shifted recognition to forces poised to defeat Gaddafi.
China “respects the choice of the Libyan people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
A senior representative for reconstruction in the rebel movement said a new government would honor all the oil contracts granted during the Gaddafi era, including those of Chinese companies. “The contracts in the oil fields are absolutely sacrosanct,” Ahmed Jehani told Reuters Insider TV.
“All lawful contracts will be honored whether they are in the oil and gas complex or in the contracting… We have contracts that were negotiated … they were auctioned openly … There’s no question of revoking any contract.”
A spokesman for rebel-run oil firm AGOCO had warned on Monday
Chinese and Russian firms could lose out on oil contracts for failing to back the rebellion.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged Gaddafi and his foes to stop fighting and talk. “We want the Libyans to come to an agreement among themselves,” he said, suggesting that Moscow could recognize the rebel government if it unites the country.
China and Russia, usually opposed to foreign intervention in sovereign states, did not veto a U.N. Security Council resolution in March that authorized NATO to use air power to protect Libyan civilians. But they criticized the scale of the air campaign and called for a negotiated solution.
The victors are in no mood for dialogue with Gaddafi.
“It’s over! Gaddafi is finished!” yelled a fighter over a din of celebratory gunfire across the Bab al-Aziziya compound, Gaddafi’s sprawling citadel of power in the Libyan capital.
KEEP REVOLUTION CLEAN, REBEL LEADER SAYS
The hunt to find Gaddafi is now on. Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel, told Al-Arabiya TV he was probably holed up somewhere in Tripoli. “It will take a long time to find him,” he said.
Some reckon the eight months it took to track down Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 helped foster the insurgency there.
Rebel National Council chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was until February a loyal minister of Gaddafi, cautioned: “It is too early to say that the battle of Tripoli is over. That won’t happen until Gaddafi and his sons are captured.”
In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, he promised parliamentary and presidential elections in eight months’ time.
“If I were to be nominated president, it would only be a temporary appointment and I would remain in that position only until the next elections, which would be the first free elections in our country,” Abdel-Jalil said.
He said the council favored trying Gaddafi and his family in Libya rather than sending him to The Hague, where he and two others have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the rebel government, also promised a transition toward democracy for Libyans. “The whole world is looking at Libya,” he said, warning against summary justice.
“We must not sully the final page of the revolution.”
Jibril said rebels had formed a new body including field commanders from a variety of local revolutionary groups to coordinate security. There is a history of friction among villages and tribes, Arabs and ethnic Berbers, and between the east and west of a state formed as an Italian colony in 1934.
Western powers who backed the revolt with air power held off from pronouncing victory although they are keen for a swift return to order, given fears any post-Gaddafi anarchy would thwart hopes of Libya resuming oil exports soon.
The fall of Gaddafi, with the arresting images on Arab satellite TV of rebels stomping through his sanctum and laying waste to the props of his power, could invigorate other revolts in the Arab world, such as in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad has launched bloody military crackdowns on protesters.