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Libyan rebels hunt Gadhafi, try to secure country's capital
TRIPOLI, Libya -- Libyans hunting Moammar Gadhafi offered a $2 million bounty on the fallen dictator's head and amnesty for anyone who kills or captures him as rebels battled Wednesday to clear the last pockets of resistance from the capital Tripoli.
While pockets of die-hard loyalists kept up the fight to defend Gadhafi, his support was crumbling by the hour, and even his foreign minister said his 42-year rule was over.
Asked by the British broadcaster Channel 4 if a negotiated settlement or safe passage for Gadhafi from Libya was still possible, Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi said: "It looks like things have passed this kind of solution."
Later, Col. Khalifa Mohammed, Gadhafi's deputy of intelligence chief, told Al-Arabiya television that he had defected to the rebels.
Gadhafi vowed from hiding to fight on "until victory or martyrdom," in an audio message early Wednesday.
Rebel leaders made first moves to extend their political control to the entire country and set up a new government in the capital. During Libya's six-month civil war, opposition leaders had established their interim administration, the National Transitional Council, in the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell under rebel control shortly after the outbreak of widespread anti-regime protests in February.
"Members of the council are now moving one by one from Benghazi to Tripoli," said Mansour Seyf al-Nasr, the Libyan opposition's new ambassador to France.
Still Tripoli was far from pacified, with pro-regime snipers cutting off the road to the airport and other loyalist fighters launching repeated attacks on Gadhafi's captured private compound. Four Italian journalists were kidnapped on the highway to Tripoli around the city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital.
The city's streets were largely empty of civilians. Rebels manned checkpoints every few hundred yards, but little else could be seen but the debris of days of fighting and weeks of accumulated garbage.
Intense clashes broke out in the Abu Salim neighborhood, a regime stronghold next to Gadhafi's vast Bab al-Aziziya compound, the symbolic center of his regime, which the rebels captured Tuesday after a fierce battle. Gadhafi loyalists inside Abu Salim were firing into the captured compound, rebels said.
Rebels found no sign of Gadhafi after the Tuesday battle for the compound, but rumors churned of his possible whereabouts. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was no evidence to indicate he had left Libya, but rebel officials acknowledged they could not find him.
"He might be in Sirte or any other place," Jibril said in Paris. Sirte, a coastal city 250 miles from Tripoli, is Gadhafi's hometown and a bastion of regime support.
Mohammed al-Herizi, an opposition official, said a group of Tripoli businessmen had announced a $2 million reward for the arrest or killing of Gadhafi. But rebel spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said the rebels themselves had only offered amnesty for anyone who kills him or hands him over.
"The biggest prize is to offer amnesty, not to give money," he said.
Rebel fighters, who by Wednesday afternoon controlled most of the Bab al-Aziziya compound, were using it as staging area for operations, loading huge trucks with ammunition and discussing deployments. But they repeatedly faced loyalist attacks Wednesday, with pro-Gadhafi snipers firing on the fighters from tall buildings in Abu Salim, said Mohammed Amin, a rebel fighter.
He said the rebels had surrounded Abu Salim, home to the country's most notorious prison and scene of a 1996 massacre of protesting political prisoners, but had been unable to push into it.
Al-Sadeq al-Kabir, a rebel spokesman, said thousands of prisoners had been released, many of them political prisoners who had been held there for years.
He also denied media reports that Gadhafi had offered a cease-fire.
The rebels claim they control the Tripoli airport but are still clashing with Gadhafi forces in the streets around it. AP reporters said the road leading to the airport was closed because of heavy fire by pro-regime snipers. One rebel fighter, Khalil Mabrouk, said most of the airport was cleared of Gadhafi soldiers, but pro-Gadhafi's forces to the south were firing rockets and shelling rebel positions inside.
Dozens of foreign journalists were released after being held captive for days by pro-government gunmen at Tripoli's once-luxurious Rixos Hotel near Abu Salim and Bab al-Aziziya.
The hotel was where rotating tours of foreign journalists had lived for the past six months, closely watched by government minders and taken on approved tours. But it had become a de facto prison after the rebels swept into the city Sunday, with a team of gunmen refusing to let the journalists leave. As the days ticked by, power outages became near-constant, leaving reporters without air-conditioning in sweltering summer heat. Hotel employees fled and the journalists had to scrounge the hotel for food and water in the final days.
Since Sunday, heavy gunbattles have raged all around the hotel, and journalists had to frequently take cover.
One guard expressed surprise when told most of the city was in rebel hands. Finally, as the rebels drew closer, most of the guards left, leaving just a pair of increasingly nervous gunmen. The journalists were suddenly freed Wednesday, as the International Committee of the Red Cross stepped in to negotiate their release.
Elsewhere in the city, streets were deserted except for the rebel checkpoints, where fighters looked for Gadhafi supporters and searched cars for weapons. At one checkpoint, one of the once-ubiquitous pictures of Gadhafi had been laid on the ground so cars had to drive over it.
Many buildings were covered in the pro-rebel graffiti that has appeared over the last few days.
Trash, already a problem in the waning months of Gadhafi's rule, now covers many streets and sidewalks. The shredded remains of Gadhafi's green flags were also scattered across the city.
Inside Gadhafi's compound, two young rebel fighters searched through a heap of pill packages in a building they said had served as a pharmacy. A broken TV, its screen shattered, lay on the ground in the courtyard. A dozen young fighters posed for pictures next to a gold-colored statue of a clenched fist squeezing a plane -- a memorial to the 1986 U.S. airstrikes on the compound in retaliation for a bombing at a German disco frequented by U.S. servicemen.
"The blood of our martyrs will not be spilled in vain," the fighters chanted, pumping their fists.
The rebels also targeted other symbols of the regime, including the homes of some of Gadhafi's children.
About 200 people ransacked the beachfront villa of Gadhafi's son al-Saadi, driving off with four of his cars -- a Lamborghini, a BMW, an Audi and a Toyota station wagon, said Seif Allah, a rebel fighter who joined in the looting and took a bottle of gin and a pair of Diesel jeans.
After a five-hour gunbattle with guards, rebels also ransacked the mansion of Gadhafi's daughter Aisha.
Clothes and DVDs were strewn on the floor of the master bedroom, including a DVD about getting in shape after childbirth. In a sitting area, a gold-colored statue of a mermaid with Aisha's face framed a sofa.
In recent years, Gadhafi's six sons had become increasingly entangled in scandals. Hannibal was arrested in 2008 for beating a hotel employee in Switzerland and al-Saadi also had run-ins with police in Europe and a history of drug and alcohol abuse. The children's misbehavior further heightened resentment against the regime.
But even as his 42-year-old regime was crumbling around him, Gadhafi vowed not to surrender. In an audio message early Wednesday, he called on residents of the Libyan capital and loyal tribesmen to free Tripoli from the "devils and traitors" who have overrun it.
Rebel officials are eager to prove they can bring a stable political future for Libya, and that their movement is more than an often-fractious collection of tribes, ethnicities and semiautonomous militias.
Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition Cabinet, said after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris that rebel officials were forming a cabinet and that a national congress would also be created to represent the country's cities. That congress will form a committee to write a new constitution, and a council to oversee elections. Parliamentary elections will come first he said, with presidential elections will later follow.
A new national army will also be created out of the rebel movement, Jibril said.
"We will invite everyone carrying weapons to join the army or the police force," he said. "There are (also) the unemployed, and they will be invited to join the standing army."
The rebels have taken control of much of Libya, sweeping through the country with the help of a relentless NATO air campaign that included including about 7,500 strike attacks against Gadhafi's forces.
Fighting also continued in areas outside of Tripoli. Jibril said pro-government forces were shelling a number of southern cities. Residents of the port town of Zwara, about 70 miles west of the capital, said they had suffered through four days of shelling.
All roads to the city had been cut off, said Sefask al-Azaabi, a 29-year-old rebel.
As government forces have been defeated elsewhere, Gadhafi's forces "take their revenge by shelling our town," he said by telephone, adding that rebel forces were running low on supplies.
"We are appealing to the (rebel) military council to send us reinforcements or this town will be finished in no time," he said.