TRIPOLI, Libya — Tripoli was a city abuzz with both joy and fear Thursday as residents of some neighborhoods emerged to replenish food supplies even as a pitched battle raged at the compound that had been fugitive leader Moammar Gadhafi's headquarters for nearly 42 years.
Rebels proclaimed that they believed they had cornered Gadhafi and some of his inner circle in a cluster of apartments near the Bab al Aziziya compound, but it was unclear why they thought so. At nightfall Gadhafi remained free, though not for any lack of eagerness on the part of residents here.
"We will hang him in Green Square — after the trial," said Imad Shaban, a resident of the Dara neighborhood who was standing guard at a checkpoint. "But if I found him myself, I would kill him."
Butchers, bakeries and grocery stores reopened in some neighborhoods, though the threat of violence remained palpable. Explosions and gunfire continued near Tripoli's main airport, and a sniper attacked the Corinthia Hotel, where many of the foreign journalists who have flocked to this city are housed. He was silenced with a barrage of rebel gunfire.
News agencies reported that a Maltese relief ship sent to retrieve foreigners trapped in Tripoli had turned back because the intended passengers couldn't make it to the harbor because of fighting. But the port itself appeared to be under rebel control and quiet.
Hope that the rebels would make short work of pro-Gadhafi forces faded elsewhere.
In the country's east, rebels were thwarted as they tried to move west along Libya's coastal highway. At least 20 rebels were reported killed at the town of Bin Jawwad, about 400 miles east of Tripoli, when they were ambushed by Gadhafi forces who'd retreated from the oil refinery town of Ras Lanouf, 30 miles away. It was a replay of a battle March 29 when rebels also were surprised at Bin Jawwad, that time by pro-Gadhafi townspeople, in a setback that marked the beginning of what became a five-month stalemate.
Heavy fighting also was reported in the desert city of Sabha, considered a Gadhafi stronghold. Rebels said they had captured the city's main thoroughfare and were advancing in other parts, but there was no way to independently verify their claims.
The toughest fight yet could turn out to be in Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, about 250 miles east of Tripoli. Rebels said they wouldn't be surprised if Gadhafi's fellow tribesmen launched a counterattack as the anti-regime forces advanced. The rebel National Transitional Council said it was trying to avoid a bloodbath in Sirte by appealing to tribal leaders for a peaceful surrender of the city, but there was no word on where the negotiations stood.
No authoritative count of dead and wounded was available.
Gadhafi remained unseen, though not unheard.
In an audio message aired on a Syria-based TV channel, Gadhafi urged his supporters to join the armed struggle to "liberate Tripoli." It was Gadhafi's third message this week.
"We must resist these enemy rats, who will be defeated thanks to the armed struggle," Gadhafi said.
Meanwhile, senior officials from 29 countries and seven international organizations, including NATO and the United Nations, convened in Istanbul, Turkey, to plot how they would assist Libya's fledgling rebel government, which has been headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi but was planning to move to Tripoli.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the delegates that his country had already given the rebels $200 million, more than half of it since late July, and he urged other countries to do likewise. He said his country was working with the rebels to develop a police force. Earlier, he met with more than 100 representatives of Turkish businesses, most of them construction companies, to discuss opportunities in the "new Libya."
The Libyan representative at the meeting thanked NATO for its aerial bombing campaign that was instrumental in the rebel success. In an interview, Arif Ali Nayed, the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, also urged NATO "to continue its efforts until all the threats to the civilian population are eliminated."
At the United Nations, Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission, said a deal had been reached to release $1.5 billion in Libyan assets in American banks.
On Thursday, those threats seemingly could come at any time. A British newspaper reporter recounted how the rebels he was traveling with in Tripoli suddenly came under attack as they approached a checkpoint they thought was manned by fellow rebels. When they identified themselves, however, pro-Gadhafi troops opened fire. One rebel was reported wounded.
Still, some neighborhoods were slowly coming back to life. The scene at a checkpoint in the Dara neighborhood was gleeful as local residents who'd set up an armed neighborhood watch mixed easily with rebel fighters from other parts of the country.
"It is a miracle," said Muyasser Khoja, a geophysicist who was 4 years old when Gadhafi took power on Sept. 1 nearly 42 years ago. "If they catch him, I will pray all day!"
Khoja said he and his neighbors had prevented people from breaking into a U.N. building that is in the area, along with a number of embassies.
"We are just ordinary people, protecting the embassies," Khoja said.
Others in the neighborhood spoke of the terror that only ended a few days ago as they gave journalists a tour of an office building adjacent to the Dutch Embassy that was recently deserted by the Unique Hawk, a group of fighters Gadhafi recruited after the uprising began Feb. 17.
Residents said the building had housed 50 fighters, who appeared to have fled in a hurry, leaving their weapons and uniforms behind, as well as lists and photos of people in the neighborhood who were targeted for assassination for their anti-government activities. There were also documents identifying the members of the group, including information about weapons the government had issued them.
Outside the building where the fighters had stayed, Ahmed Farhad, the imam of a nearby mosque, pondered what he would say on the first Friday in memory that he could speak his mind.
"We need democracy, freedom, the rule of law and justice," said Farhad, 51. "We will speak about the revolution. Tomorrow I can say what I want — even if (members of the former government) are there, there is nothing they can do."
Farhad said that since Feb. 17, the government had cracked down on imams who preached revolution against the government.
"They killed many imams," Farhad said. "Inside the mosques they killed them."
Residents who were part of the neighborhood watch said they were getting on well with the rebels who had come into Tripoli, after being initially suspicious of what changes they might bring.
Throughout the day, rebels sped through the checkpoint with shouts of "Allahu akbar" (God is great) on their way to the fighting around Bab al Aziziya.
But the fighting was not over, and as sunset drew closer, the rebels prepared for a wider offensive in the area.
(Enders, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Tripoli, Allam, from Cairo. Special correspondent Ipek Yezdani reported from Istanbul.)
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