Clashes broke out near Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli early today, a day after rebels poured into the Libyan capital in a stunning advance which met little resistance from the regime’s defenders.
Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman said government tanks emerged from the complex, known as Bab al-Aziziya, early today and opened fire.
An Associated Press reporter at the nearby Rixos Hotel where foreign journalists stay could hear gunfire and loud explosions from the direction of the complex.
Tripoli resident Moammar al-Warfali, whose family home is next to Bab al-Aziziya, said tanks rolled out from the compound in the early morning after a group of rebels tried to get in.
He said there appeared to be only a few tanks belonging to the remaining Gaddafi forces which have not fled or surrendered.
Bab al-Aziziya, a sprawling compound that has long served as the command centre for the regime, has been heavily damaged by repeated Nato air strikes over the past five months, Mr al-Warfali said.
“When I climb the stairs and look at it from the roof, I see nothing at Bab al-Aziziya,” he said. “Nato has demolished it all and nothing remains.”
The rebels seized control of most of Tripoli in a lightning advance yesterday, and euphoric residents celebrated in the capital’s Green Square, the symbolic heart of the Gaddafi regime.
Gaddafi’s defenders quickly melted away as his 42-year rule crumbled, but the leader’s whereabouts were unknown and pockets of resistance remained.
Mr Abdel-Rahman, who is in Tripoli with rebel forces, cautioned that Gaddafi troops still pose a threat to rebels, and that as long as Gaddafi remained on the run the “danger is still there”.
The startling rebel breakthrough, after a long deadlock in Libya’s six-month-old civil war, was the culmination of a closely co-ordinated plan by rebels, Nato and anti-Gaddafi residents inside Tripoli, rebel leaders said.
Rebel fighters from the west swept more than 20 miles (30km) in a matter of hours yesterday, taking town after town and overwhelming a major military base as residents poured out to cheer them. At the same time, Tripoli residents secretly armed by rebels rose up.
By the early hours of today, opposition fighters controlled most of the capital.
The seizure of Green Square held profound symbolic value – the plaza was the scene of pro-Gaddafi rallies organised by the regime almost every night, and Gaddafi delivered speeches to his loyalists from the historic Red Fort which overlooks the square.
Rebels and Tripoli residents set up checkpoints around the city, though pockets of pro-Gaddafi fighters remained. In one area, AP reporters with the rebels were stopped and told to take a different route because of regime snipers nearby.
US President Barack Obama said Libya is “slipping from the grasp of a tyrant” and urged Gaddafi to relinquish power to prevent more bloodshed.
“The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people,” Mr Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on holiday. He promised to work closely with rebels.