Forces loyal to fugitive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi struck back Monday against the rebel fighters who had swept euphorically into the capital the night before, forcing them to retreat from several strategic locations and tempering hopes that the battle for Tripoli was all but over.
The dramatic appearance Monday night of Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam at the Rixos hotel, where the Tripoli-based press corps remains trapped, contradicted the rebels' assertion the day before that they had captured him.
It also cast into doubt their claim of controlling 80 percent of the capital.
Video footage recorded by the Reuters news agency showed Saif al-Islam being greeted by supporters. "To hell with the ICC," he said, referring to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. "We assure the people that things are fine in Libya."
The BBC and CNN quoted him as telling reporters that after luring the rebels into a trap, government forces had "broken the back" of the opposition army and pro-Gadhafi forces are back in control of the city.
The confusion made the assertion impossible to confirm. But with gunfire and explosions echoing ominously through the streets and Gadhafi's whereabouts still unknown, the capital clearly was far from secure.
President Obama and other world leaders declared an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42-year-long rule and hailed the courage of the Libyan people. The leaders said they were looking forward to cooperating with a new Libyan government, which presumably would be led by the opposition's Transitional National Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
But Obama cautioned that "the situation is still very fluid."
"There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat," he said, speaking from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing. But, addressing his remarks to the Libyan people, he said, "The Libya that you deserve is within your reach."
How close was in question, however, as the uncertainty on Tripoli's streets appeared only to mount as the day wore on. With Gadhafi himself on the run, the epic and often-eccentric rule of the man who once proclaimed himself "king of Africa" clearly had effectively come to a close.
Yet the mystery surrounding his whereabouts and the indications that his loyalists still were capable of mounting resistance in the capital raised echoes of Baghdad in April 2003, when Saddam Hussein slipped away from advancing U.S. troops and later served as a lightning rod for disgruntled regime loyalists, who formed the core of an insurgency that persists to this day.
Rebels in Tripoli said they were confident that Gadhafi remained in the capital, and they erected checkpoints around the city to ensure he did not slip away. "We are winning. It is safe," said Abdel Azouz, a rebel fighter, as the sound of explosions and gunfire echoed down the telephone line. "There's just a few dirty rats here and there who don't want to give up."
Azouz acknowledged, however, that Gadhafi loyalists were in firm control of the fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound on the southern edge of Tripoli, where Gadhafi purportedly lived. NATO has targeted the compound so frequently that few Libyans believe he has been staying there recently. But the rebels suspect that he may be hiding in a house somewhere in the area.
The compound is about a mile from the Rixos hotel, where journalists, in effect, are being held hostage by pro-Gadhafi gunmen in the lobby who are refusing to let them leave.
Speaking on a borrowed telephone because the batteries on his phone had run out, CNN correspondent Matthew Chance said that the hotel was without electricity and that the journalists had gathered for safety in an inside room. "This could go badly wrong," he told the network. "It's becoming a lot more ugly here."
But Gadhafi might not be in Tripoli, possibly having taked refuge perhaps weeks ago in the southern city of Sabha or the central coastal town of Sirte, his home town and most staunchly loyal stronghold. He has not been seen in public since June, though he has delivered numerous audio statements, most recently late Sunday as the rebels swept into Tripoli.
With the focus now on the capital, when or whether the rebels would be able to dislodge Gadhafi's supporters from Sirte was unclear. The heavily guarded garrison town lies on the coastal highway between the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi and Tripoli, effectively isolating the rebel government from the country's real capital.
Speaking in Benghazi, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Transitional National Council leader, acknowledged that Sirte would be a even tougher challenge than Tripoli. He said he was hoping the town's residents would rise up, as many did in Tripoli, something that seems unlikely given that most of the area's residents are members of Gadhafi's tribe.
Several firefights erupted near Green Square, the symbolic heart of Tripoli, where revelers had gathered the night before but which stood largely deserted Monday.
Among other indications that the battle elsewhere still has not run its course, a rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata said a Scud missile, apparently fired from Sirte, had exploded in the sea, causing no casualties but serving as a reminder that Gadhafi's forces still have considerable weaponry at their disposal. It was the third Scud fired at Misrata in a week, said Mohammed Ali, the spokesman.
Other reports late Monday said Gadhafi loyalists had launched a fierce counteroffensive against rebels who had seized control of the western coastal town of Zuwarah, near the border with Tunisia. Arish al-Fanousa, a spokesman for the town's rebels who fled to Tunisia, said loyalist forces had surrounded Zuwarah and subjected it to a 24-hour barrage of shellfire.