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Dominant Rebels Target Gadhafi Strongholds

Libya's rebel Transitional National Council said Thursday it was moving its leadership from Benghazi to Tripoli immediately, highlighting the major gains rebels fighter have made in recent days against Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Gadhafi, on the run with his regime in tatters, tried to rally his followers to kill the rebels.

"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.

Fighting in and around Tripoli was deadly Thursday. The battle for the Abu Salim neighborhood, which rebels appeared to have won by sundown, was part of their struggle to take complete control of Tripoli, four days after they swept into the capital and sparked the collapse of Gadhafi's regime. Even though they have captured the leader's compound and seized most of the city, the rebels know they cannot declare a full victory in the six-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.

The developments provided a rare glimpse into the Gadhafi family's secret lives: It seems the whole family had an obsession with being underground.

Moatasim Gadhafi, one of his father's top military commanders, lived in a huge compound to which NPR was granted access. The house is encircled with 30-foot metal walls and encloses a paradise-like garden with two homes — one only half completed.

One of the strangest features: a fully equipped hospital buried underneath the garden, the entrance to which is hidden by bushes; the doors are thick steel plates that can withstand attacks.

The hospital equipment was taken to medical facilities that are in dire need in the capital. The house was looted — all that's left is the modern glass-and-concrete structure and a few odds and ends: an empty Corona beer box, a few magazines, scattered cushions and his king-size bed.

But Gadhafi, in a message broadcast on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station, remained defiant.

"Fill the streets and the squares. Don't be afraid of the raids," he said. "Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, and kill them," he added. He lashed out at the West, saying "NATO can't remain in the air all the time" and Libya is "not for France and Sarkozy."

Abu Salim, near Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound seized by rebels, is thought to be the last major stronghold of regime brigades in Tripoli, though there has also been ongoing fighting around the airport.

Fierce battles have raged for the past few days in Abu Salim, and many of Gadhafi's defenders who fled his Bab al-Aziziya compound after rebels captured it Tuesday were thought to have moved to the adjacent neighborhood.

The fighters — in long lines of pickup trucks with weapons mounted on the back, or on foot, dressed in shorts and carrying machine guns — moved methodically through the neighborhood trying to clear buildings of Gadhafi defenders. They fired anti-aircraft guns and rockets.

The streets were strewn with bullet-ridden corpses from both sides, some on fire. The rebels covered their own with blankets. Streams of blood ran down the streets and turned sewers red.

Deafening explosions from mortars and the whistle of sniper fire filled the air, which was clogged with smoke from burning buildings and weapons fire.

Civilians were in some of the buildings and caught up in the crossfire.

The rebels, many from the western rebel-held city of Misrata, were spurred on by the rumors that one of Gadhafi's sons might be hiding in the buildings.

Even as Gadhafi's grip on power slipped, he tried to keep up the facade he has the upper hand. He has repeatedly vowed to fight until "victory or martyrdom."

Gadhafi 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.

Ibrahim said Gadhafi's forces controlled a "good portion" of the capital — a claim that contradicts what reporters can see — and other cities and towns.

In Abu Salim, the barrage that lasted for hours ended at sunset and rebel fighters went door to door through largely deserted apartment buildings, occasionally dragging out suspected regime loyalists.

Some were dark-skinned men in camouflage cutoffs and T-shirts who had their hands tied behind their backs before they were driven away. The rebels have long claimed Gadhafi had been hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to bolster his army.

Some rebels looted the buildings, taking computers from a devastated fire station and printers from a nearby market area.

The buildings in Abu Salim were still covered with pro-Gadhafi graffiti, which have been largely covered over in the rest of the city.

Earlier in the day, at least two dozen bodies were discovered around the burned up remnants of a camp for Gadhafi sympathizers just outside his Bab al-Aziziya compound. The tents were still smoldering and the bodies of mainly dark-skinned men were scattered around the grassy traffic circle, some with hands tied behind their back.

It is not clear who they were, but they appear to have been activists camping near the compound in defiance of NATO airstrikes over the past months. If they were killed by rebels, it raises the specter of atrocities against civilians.

Rebels say one of their key targets now is Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, about 250 miles from Tripoli, but acknowledged that capturing that city would not be easy because Gadhafi's fellow tribesmen were expected to put up a fierce fight. Opposition leaders have said they were trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the city.

The rebels said the supply lines to Sirte would be too long and they are short of funds and supplies.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel Transitional National Council, called on people living in loyalist-held towns to join the fight against Gadhafi's soldiers.

"I am appealing to the areas not yet liberated to join the revolution," he told reporters in Benghazi. "There is no excuse for them not to join."

At the United Nations, the U.S. and South Africa reached a deal that will release $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets in American banks. South Africa had blocked an agreement over concerns that it implied recognition of the TNC. The Libyan opposition says it needs at least $5 billion in frozen assets to pay state salaries, maintain vital services and repair critical oil facilities. Analysts estimate that as much as $110 billion is frozen in banks worldwide.

Meanwhile, Fawzi Abu Ketf, deputy defense minister of the rebel Transitional National Council, said fighting was raging Thursday outside Bin Jawad, 400 miles east of Tripoli, but he had no details. Gadhafi loyalists ambushed rebels advancing toward the city on Wednesday, killing at least 20 of them.

The ambush showed that pro-regime forces retain the ability to strike back even as the rebels tighten their control over the nation's capital.

Rebels also have seized several parts of Sebha, a Gadhafi stronghold deep in the south, including the main commercial Gamal Abdel-Nasser street, according to rebel official Adel al-Zintani, who is in daily telephone contact with rebel commanders in the desert city.

Four Italian journalists taken at gunpoint in Libya were also freed Thursday in a raid on the house where they were being held, an official said.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires