The streets where rebel fighters bombarded snipers loyal to Moammar Gadhafi were strewn with bullet-ridden corpses from both sides Thursday. Streams of blood ran down the gutters and turned sewers red.
By sundown, the rebels appeared to have won the battle for the Abu Salim neighborhood, next to Gadhafi's captured Tripoli compound, but the fallen dictator continued to elude them. Speaking from an unknown location, he exhorted his supporters to fight on.
"Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, and kill them," Gadhafi said in a new audio message broadcast on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station.
Outside his Bab al-Aziziya compound, which rebels captured Tuesday, there was another grim scene -- one that suggested mass execution-style killings of civilians.
About two dozen bodies -- some with their hands bound by plastic ties and with bullet wounds to the head -- lay scattered on grassy lots in an area where Gadhafi sympathizers had camped out for months.
The identities of the dead were unclear, but they were in all likelihood activists who had set up an impromptu tent city in solidarity with Gadhafi in defiance of the NATO bombing campaign.
Five or six bodies were in a tent erected on a roundabout that had served as a field clinic. One of the dead still had an IV in his arm, and another body was completely charred, its legs missing. The body of a doctor, in his green hospital gown, was found dumped in the canal.
It was unclear who was responsible for the killings.
Rebels have seized most of Tripoli since sweeping into the capital Sunday, and Thursday they announced that their leadership was moving into the capital. The rebel National Transitional Council has been based in the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell to rebel forces early in the conflict.
"In the name of the martyrs I proclaim the beginning of the work of the executive office in a free Tripoli as of this moment," Ali Tarhouni, the council's finance minister, told reporters in Tripoli.
The rebels know they cannot declare a full victory in the 6-month-old civil war as long as Gadhafi has not been captured or killed. There was no sign of the leader or his sons, despite rumors that swirled around the battlefield that they may be hiding inside some of the besieged buildings in Abu Salim.
The neighborhood, where battles have raged for days, is thought to be the last major stronghold of regime brigades in Tripoli, though there has also been ongoing fighting around the airport.
The air was clogged with deafening explosions from mortars, the whistle of sniper fire and smoke from burning buildings and ammunition.
Civilians were in some of the buildings and caught up in the crossfire.
A mother ran out of one the buildings under siege, screaming: "My son needs first aid." Behind her, the building's glass windows were shattered, and black smoke poured out of a burning apartment.
In Washington, the Pentagon pushed back on assertions that either NATO or the U.S. military is actively engaged in a manhunt for Gadhafi, underscoring ongoing sensitivities over the strict parameters of the U.N. mission there.
Marine Col. David Lapan said the United States is conducting aerial surveillance of Libya in support of NATO's military mission to protect civilians from attack by government forces. But he said this does not amount to targeting Gadhafi, adding that it is not NATO's mission to target or hunt down individuals.
That statement conflicted with comments by British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who said Thursday that NATO intelligence and reconnaissance assets are being used to try to hunt down Gadhafi.
Gadhafi's spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, in a call to AP's Cairo office, said Gadhafi was still in Libya, and his morale was high. Ibrahim refused to say where Gadhafi was hiding, but said he "is indeed leading the battle for our freedom and independence."
Ibrahim, whose voice was clearly recognizable, said he was also in hiding in Libya and constantly on the move.
"All of the leader's family are fine," Ibrahim said, adding that top military and political aides remained with Gadhafi.
The rebels have appealed to foreign governments for help freeing up funds that Gadhafi's regime has amassed around the world. The United States and South Africa reached a deal Thursday that will release $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets in American banks, and Italy was preparing to release $505 million in frozen assets in Italian banks in what Premier Silvio Berlusconi called a first payment.