For the first time in months, witnesses in Tripoli reported heavy fighting across the capital late Saturday night, even as rebel forces claimed to have encircled the city by taking major towns to its east, west and south.
Rebel leaders in Tunis and eastern Libya hailed the beginning of a new uprising in the capital against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule. And after months of rebel offenses that crumbled or stalled despite heavy support from a NATO airstrike campaign, it was the first time since the uprising began in February that the rebels threatened Colonel Qaddafi’s ultimate stronghold.
“We are coordinating the attacks inside, and our forces from outside are ready to enter Tripoli,” said Anwar Fekini, a rebel leader from the mountainous region in western Libya, speaking by telephone from Tunis. “If you can call any mobile number in Tripoli, you will hear in the background the beautiful sound of the bullets of freedom.”
Phone calls to several Tripoli residents from different neighborhoods confirmed widespread gunfire and explosions. And there were reports of frequent NATO jet overflights and airstrikes — a common accompaniment to the drumbeat of the rebel advance in the past week.
But in an audio message broadcast on state television, his second in a week, Colonel Qaddafi rejected claims of rebel gains, saying his forces had beaten back the Tripoli uprising within hours and announcing military successes in the same cities rebels had claimed to seize on Saturday. He gave the date and time several times to confirm that he was speaking as events were unfolding.
“The rebels are fleeing like rats, to the mountains,” Colonel Qaddafi said.
But even as he described a “collapse” among rebel fighters and NATO forces, he railed at world leaders who were supporting the uprising, accusing them of giving rebels “weapons to destroy our air-conditioners!”
He gave no indication of where he might be speaking from, a topic of increasing speculation in recent days as rumors have swirled of his preparing to flee, or perhaps having already left Libya.
If Colonel Qaddafi’s location remained unknown, it became increasingly clear Saturday that even his most senior aides were making exits of their own.
The Tunisian state news agency reported Saturday that Libya’s oil minister, Omran Abukraa, had defected to Tunisia, after leaving Tripoli on what was ostensibly a business trip abroad. If confirmed, his defection would be the third of a senior government official in the past week.
Abdel Salam Jalloud, a former Qaddafi deputy, was reported to have defected Friday. A senior security official, Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, flew to Cairo with his family on Monday.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the rebel government, the National Transitional Council, said that he hoped Colonel Qaddafi and the rest of his inner circle would follow. “That would be a good thing that will end the bloodshed and help us avoid material costs,” he said. “But I do not expect that he will do that.”
After reports of the Tripoli fighting began, some residents said that a group of rebel fighters had infiltrated the city from the east and were spearheading the uprising, surprising the pro-Qaddafi forces who had fortified for an attack from the western approach guarded by Zawiyah. Residents added that in recent weeks rebels had also smuggled weapons into the city by boat to the beaches east of Tripoli to prepare. Their claims could not be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile, rebel forces closing in on the capital made important gains on Saturday. By afternoon, the rebels had driven Colonel Qaddafi’s forces out of Zawiyah, the strategic oil refinery town 30 miles west of Tripoli. After a week of heavy fighting there, residents began to celebrate in the main square.
The Arab news network Al Jazeera reported that Zlitan, a crucial Qaddafi barracks town east of Tripoli, also had fallen to the rebels. They captured Gharyan, the gateway to the south, last week.
Farther east, the rebels claimed to have seized the residential areas of the oil port of Brega, a prize that has changed hands many times since the uprising began.
A senior American official said Colonel Qaddafi’s days “are numbered.”
“It is clear that the situation is moving against Qaddafi,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, said after meeting rebel leaders in Benghazi, the rebel capital. “The opposition continues to make substantial gains on the ground while his forces grow weaker.”
Rebel leaders were optimistic. “The end is very near” for Colonel Qaddafi, said Mr. Abdel-Jalil, the leader of the rebel’s governing council. “We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Qaddafi,” he said. “All evidence is that the end is very near, with God’s grace.”
Amid worries from the West and humanitarian groups that rebel fighters might seek revenge against Qaddafi supporters, the rebels’ National Transitional Council said Saturday that it was reissuing a booklet reminding its mostly novice fighters about the international laws of war.
But the battle was hardly over. In the past six months, the rebels have frequently proven unable to hold captured territory, sometimes keeping it no longer than a few days. Government forces were still fighting fiercely outside Zawiyah, and in Brega they controlled the oil refinery.
Tripoli, while under new pressure, remains a Qaddafi stronghold, as does Surt, a coastal city to the east, and Sabha to the south. Government officials continued to insist that they would fight to the end.
Still, with rebels virtually surrounding the capital and NATO bombing the city from positions in the Mediterranean, residents were feeling increasingly under siege. The main supply routes were closed, making electricity and fuel scarce. Crime is increasing and garbage is piling up in the streets.
There were also reports that Qaddafi loyalists were blocking off streets in Tripoli and setting up sniper positions in preparation for battle.
In recent days, members of the so-called Tripoli Brigade, a group of rebel fighters tasked with securing the capital after the fall of the government, were seen heading to a base in Zawiyah. On Friday, a brigade commander said the unit of roughly 1,000 fighters had been training in the western city of Nalut and expected to be deployed in the coming days.
In Zawiyah, even as Qaddafi forces continued to shell the city from the outskirts, residents began to emerge from their homes and took in the remains of their city, devastated by the battle for the central Martyrs’ Square.
Three bodies, identified as Qaddafi soldiers, lay covered in blankets at the edge of a plaza. “Mercenaries,” some residents said, but that was far from certain. The tall grass in the plaza was strewn with green and white government forms that had blown out of rocket holes in a nearby administrative building.
That building, as well as a bank and a hotel, had been used by the Qaddafi soldiers as snipers’ nests, the rebels said. The white park benches and paths below were marked with their bullets. On the grounds of the buildings, piles of military gear were left in a sign of a hasty retreat: a green flak jacket, a wooden trunk full of food and a toothbrush.
In a store, the Qaddafi soldiers had scrawled a message: “Libya wants Muammar el-Qaddafi.” All over the square, they left green flags.
The rebels, backed by NATO warplanes, had taken almost a week to drive the snipers out. The hotel, the Jewel, was singed black from a fire on the upper floors. The top of the administrative building had collapsed under the force of a NATO bomb.
In the late afternoon, young men drove into the square and spun their cars around in tight circles, their screeching tires echoing off shattered buildings.
A man watching shook his head in stunned disbelief. “I swear to God,” he said, “freedom is beautiful.”