TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's rebel council on Wednesday announced a bounty of $1.7 million for the capture — dead or alive — of fugitive leader Moammar Gadhafi, who vowed in an audio recording to fight until "victory or martyrdom" even as it seemed increasingly clear that his regime had all but ended.
For the second straight day, rebels were inside Gadhafi's sprawling, palm-dotted Bab al Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, battling the remnants of Gadhafi's forces. Cementing their capture of the compound, a once-forbidding place that had served as Gadhafi's power nexus, would be a key symbolic victory.
But rebel leaders were already laying plans to begin the gargantuan task of remaking their nation after four decades of Gadhafi's repressive rule.
Mahmoud Jibril, a senior leader of the National Transitional Council, which is poised to become Libya's caretaker authority, flew to Paris on Wednesday for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on international assistance for the post-Gadhafi era. Sarkozy called for an international conference on Libya to be held in Paris on Sept. 1 and said France was ready to provide medical aid and military assistance there "as long as our Libyan friends need it," according to news reports.
The council's efforts will require a major infusion of cash. The United States is working through the United Nations to free $1.5 billion in Libyan assets frozen in U.S. banks. Other nations have pledged to follow suit; Libya has an estimated $100 billion frozen in international banks.
There was no way to know how soon all of Tripoli would be under rebel control, however. Many neighborhoods appeared to be pacified, with checkpoints every 100 yards where vehicles were searched for weapons and the occupants were asked for identification. What gunfire could be heard in the western Tripoli neighborhood of Gagarish appeared to be celebratory — tracer rounds could be seen shooting nearly straight up into the sky.
Rebels also appeared to be in firm control of the highway from the Tunisian border crossing near Nalut to Tripoli, even using the roadway as a landing strip for large airliners. At one point, rebels stopped traffic to allow a Boeing 737 to take off. It was not clear what the plane's cargo had been.
Still, travel in the country was risky. Four Italian journalists reportedly were abducted and their driver killed outside the town of Zawiya, which the rebels had captured Saturday at the beginning of their assault on Tripoli.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said the missing journalists work for the publications Corriere della Sera, La Stampa and Avvenire. As of late Wednesday, no group had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
Avvenire's bureau in Rome said its reporter had called to say that all four journalists were fine and that they'd been moved to a house, according to news reports. It wasn't clear where the journalists were being held, or by whom.
In Tripoli, the Bab al Aziziyah complex remained the central battleground. Live video showed rebels firing rockets at targeted buildings on the premises. Huge plumes of black smoke rose over the compound; loud explosions and gunshots could be heard.
There was no sign of Gadhafi, however, and rebel officials were hopeful the reward, pledged by a Libyan businessman, and a promise of immunity from prosecution would encourage one of his entourage to kill him or turn him in.
"To any of his inner circle who kill Gadhafi or capture him, society will give amnesty or pardon for any crime he has committed," council head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Gadhafi was last heard from early Wednesday in a rambling diatribe first aired on an Iraqi-owned Arabic-language TV station. In the audio recording, Gadhafi said he'd moved from his Bab al Aziziyah compound as a tactical measure and boasted of going incognito in Tripoli streets to watch his supporters take up arms to defend his rule from the rebels.
Another satellite channel, Al Arabiya, reported that more Gadhafi statements were expected to air soon; the channel didn't say how the messages were obtained.
Rebels combing through the compound found no sign of the missing leader or his family. Some rebels speculated he'd headed to his hometown of Sirte, where he still has supporters. The transitional council has said it was trying to negotiate the peaceful surrender of Sirte and is courting tribal leaders to convince loyalists to lay down their arms, according to news reports.
In other parts of the capital, ordinary Libyans were beginning to peer out at the surreal landscape beyond their doorsteps. Reached by phone, they said they'd witnessed neighborhood patrols, battle damage and rebel victory parades at the seaport. But most had yet to wander closer to the clashes still taking place in other parts of Tripoli.
"The rebels tell us to stick to our houses unless we really need to leave urgently," said Rowaida al Ghuweil, a housewife in the Bin Ashour district, about 15 minutes from Tripoli's city center. "We all stockpiled food and medicine and children's food because we knew that we'd come to this point where cannot leave the house."
Ghuweil said families were feeling safer after hearing that rebels had all but taken over the Bab al Aziziyah compound, proof to them that Gadhafi's rule really was coming to an end. She said her family had begun venturing out with short trips to nearby relatives' homes and felt safe with the presence of "revolutionary patrols" that had sprung up to protect neighborhoods.
"There were no attacks on any houses," she said. "There were only raids to the homes of government members and army officers, to secure the houses and collect the weapons to arm the revolution's youth."
Another resident of Bin Ashour, who would identify himself only as Haitham out of security concerns, said water and power had been cut in Tripoli for the past two days, but that on Wednesday electricity returned and was stable.
Haitham described an eerily quiet Tripoli, with deserted streets and closed shops. Only a few neighborhood kiosks down back streets were open, and only for a few hours each day, he said. He said most families had set aside provisions in anticipation of such a scenario.
"People are feeling more comfortable during the day, but the movement is very slow," Haitham said. "People are still worried and they rarely leave their houses."
The situation, however, was dire for the city's medical facilities, most of which remained closed or overwhelmed. The Red Cross announced that it had delivered emergency supplies to three Tripoli hospitals. The rebel council has said 400 people died and about 2,000 were wounded in the recent fighting.
"Some clinics are working, but most of the hospitals are shut down," Haitham said. "Some houses are turning into home clinics and receiving injured people. Some doctors are operating from their own houses."
Closer to the fighting, about 35 Westerners, including many foreign journalists and a former delegate to the U.S. Congress from Washington, D.C., were freed after five days of captivity by Gadhafi guards at the lavish Rixos Hotel.
In TV interviews, the dazed journalists said they'd begun stockpiling what little food and water was left in the hotel since the rebels entered Tripoli and most of the hotel staff vanished over the weekend.
With no power, their TVs didn't work and their telephone batteries died, leaving them almost totally unaware of the mayhem just outside the hotel entrance.
When they emerged after colleagues arrived and disarmed their two captors, the journalists said, they were shocked to find out that there was a rebel checkpoint just blocks away.
"I had absolutely no sense Tripoli would be like this," said journalist Matthew Price, speaking to Britain's BBC shortly after his release from the Rixos. "We have been with Gadhafi loyalists the whole time who really did not believe this could happen."
The journalists reported the guards insisted that they had no idea that Gadhafi's reign was coming to an end and that once they learned what had taken place, they agreed to let the journalists go.
It was unclear what former Del. Walter Fauntroy, D-D.C., had been doing in Libya or how long he had been there. Fauntroy served in Congress as the capital's non-voting representative from 1971 to 1990 and is currently the president of an advocacy group, the Global Campaign for Middle East Peace, whose chairwoman, Harriet Fulbright, is the widow of Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark.
D.C.'s current congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said in a news release on her website that Fauntroy was safe and uninjured and in the custody of the International Committee of the Red Cross and would soon leave Libya.
(McClatchy special correspondent Enders reported from Tripoli and Allam and special correspondent Sabry from Cairo.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011