Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi's compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besieged dictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi's power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for -- and gunbattles flaring across the nervous city -- the fighters cannot declare victory.
Early today, Gadhafi, speaking on a local Tripoli radio station, which was reported by Al-Orouba television and Reuters, said his withdrawal from Bab al Aziziya was a "tactical move." Gadhafi did not say where he was speaking from. He vowed "martyrdom" or victory in his fight against NATO.
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for five hours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled off thousands of rifles, crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
"We're looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, 19, a rebel dressed in camouflage with a rocket-propelled grenade slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over the other, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is inside the compound but hiding underground. "Wasn't he the one who called us rats? Now he is the rat underground," he said.
Tripoli's new rebel military chief, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, said at nightfall that a small area of the vast compound was still under the control of regime fighters and heavy shooting was heard across Tripoli toward midnight.
The atmosphere in the compound was a mix of joyful celebration and tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles, and the boom of mortars and the crackle of gunfire were constant. Rebels chanted "Allahu akbar" or "God is great" and on loudspeakers they cried: "Al-Hamdullilah," or "Thank God."
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters -- one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot -- were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi and kicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilant comrades danced and yelled around him. Fighters with long beards hugged each other and flashed the "V" for victory sign. Others carried 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."
The rebels carted out boxes of the weapons and ammunition, and some drove off with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on the back.
One drove out with a golf cart. Another walked out with a fan. Others were busy ripping down posters of Gadhafi.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, there was a shocking setback. The rebels had claimed that they arrested Gadhafi's son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam. It was confirmed by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which has charged him and his father with crimes against humanity.
But inexplicably, Seif al-Islam showed up at the hotel where foreign journalists are staying under the close watch of regime minders early Tuesday. He giddily took reporters on an eerie drive in the middle of the night to see hundreds of pro-regime gunmen around Bab al-Aziziya and at least a hundred more lined up outside, where guns were being handed out to volunteers.
The rebels waited hours to explain, saying word of his capture had come from secondhand reports from some rebels that were never confirmed and had been leaked to journalists. But in an indication that the announcement of his arrest might have been a ruse calculated to demoralize the regime, Mahmoud Jibril, head of the rebels' acting Cabinet, said the reports had some political and military benefits.
Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's former deputy ambassador to the U.N., said he expected the entire country would be in rebel hands within 72 hours.