Remnants of forces still loyal to Muammar Gadhafi staged a desperate stand in Tripoli on Tuesday as rebels fought their way into the capital, but the whereabouts of the veteran leader was a mystery.
World leaders urged Gadhafi, 69, to surrender to prevent more bloodshed and appealed for an orderly transition of power, as the six-month-old battle for control of the oil-producing North African nation appeared to enter its final stages.
Rebels say they are now in control of most of Tripoli, a sprawling coastal city of two million people on the Mediterranean Sea, but it was not clear whether Gadhafi was still in the Libyan capital.
Rebels swept into Tripoli two days ago in tandem with an uprising within the city. Reuters reporters saw firefights and clashes with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, as rebels tried to flush out snipers and pockets of resistance.
Hundreds seem to have been killed or wounded since Saturday. But Gadhafi tanks and sharpshooters appeared to hold only small areas, mainly around Gadhafi’s heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziyah compound in central Tripoli.
Civilians, who had mobbed the streets on Sunday to cheer the end of dictatorship, stayed indoors as machinegun fire and explosions punctuated some of the heaviest fighting of the Arab Spring uprisings that have been reshaping the Middle East.
U.S. President Barack Obama, saying the conflict was not over yet, cautioned rebels against exacting revenge for Gadhafi’s brutal rule. “True justice will not come from reprisals and violence,” he said.
The president also made plain that the United States would oppose any group within the loose coalition of rebels from imposing its power over other parts of Libyan society.
“Above all we will call for an inclusive transition that leads to a democratic Libya,” Obama said.
In an audio broadcast on Sunday before state TV went off the air, Gaddafi said he would stay in Tripoli “until the end”. There has been speculation, however, he might seek refuge in his home region around Sirte, or abroad.
In a sign Gadhafi allies were still determined to fight, NATO said government forces fired three Scud-type missiles from the area of Sirte towards the rebel-held city of Misrata.
Bab al-Aziziyah, a huge complex where some believe Gaddafi might be hiding, was the focal point of fighting in Tripoli.
NATO warplanes bombed the compound in the early hours of Tuesday, al-Arabiya television reported citing rebel sources.
“I don’t imagine the Bab al-Aziziyah compound will fall easily and I imagine there will be a fierce fight,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council, said in an interview aired by Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jazeera television, quoting its correspondent, said violent clashes were also reported near the oil town of Brega.
Rebels said they held three of Gadhafi’s sons, including his heir apparent Seif al-Islam. Al-Jazeera TV said that one of them, Mohammed, had escaped, adding that the body of another son, military commander Khamis, might have been found along with that of powerful intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.