Libya's rebel government moving to Tripoli to head off power vacuum

Rebel leaders based in the east are heading to Tripoli to strengthen their claim as the legitimate government of Libya. But their credibility has been shaken by inaccurate statements about rebel achievements.

By , Correspondent

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    Rebel fighters react as they advance to the frontline during a fighting in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 23. Rebels say they control most of Tripoli, but they faced pockets of fierce resistance from regime loyalists firing mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
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Libya's rebel leaders are moving to establish political control in Tripoli in anticipation of Muammar Qaddafi's fall, seeking to prevent a power vacuum and establish themselves as the sovereign government of a new Libya.

“We have to be there at the moment of liberation,” says Joma Sayehi Eltayef, who has been coordinating preparations for securing Tripoli from the eastern city of Benghazi. “We can’t leave any opportunities for remnants of the regime, or a vacuum. We need a strong grip so that we don’t have chaos. As soon as the regime falls, we have an alternative ready to take over.”

The move poses a major test of the leadership's coordination as it prepares to expand its responsibility from the rebel-controlled east to the entire nation, and make the transition from the battlefield to the task of running a vast, oil-rich country.

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Rebel leaders flying to Tripoli today

After rebels' swift takeover of the capital on Sunday night, Qaddafi loyalists began fighting back intensely today, indicating that the push to take the capital may yet be a bloody and drawn-out battle. The rebels' National Transition Council, as well as local councils under its umbrella, is now activating plans it has been preparing for months.

The NTC is sending government ministers to Tripoli today to begin coordinating executive control as well as security, and aims to implement its transition plan as soon as possible.

Mr. Eltayef, a Tripoli native from a prominent family and leader of the local Tripoli council, says he will try to fly to the capital today. Once there, he plans to activate what he calls an extensive network of Tripoli residents he has been preparing over the past few months to secure the capital once rebel fighters took control.

He plans to ensure the security of the capital by deploying his network to man checkpoints, secure government buildings, commercial centers, bakeries, and streets, and allow civil services to continue, he says.

The hundreds of people he has cultivated over recent months, first in person and then via satellite phone after he fled to Benghazi early in the uprising, have already begun to step into their roles as their neighborhoods have been freed. When Qaddafi falls, they will be in full force, he says.

“This is of course in harmony with what the NTC is doing, under the National Transitional Council umbrella,” says Eltayef, whose brother is an NTC minister.

Credibility concerns in Benghazi

Yet even as the council begins to extend its reach to the capital, it is facing doubts in Benghazi. Initial reports that rebels captured two of Qaddafi’s sons fell apart when one was reported to have escaped and the other appeared at a hotel where foreign journalists are staying in the capital.

The leader of the NTC “has lost his credibility by repeatedly lying to the press,” said a woman who asked to remain anonymous while criticizing the rebel leader because she came from a prominent family in Benghazi. A spokesman for the council refused to talk when contacted by phone today and then turned off his phone.

These latest developments have compounded local doubts about the NTC in the wake of the July 29 assassination of rebel military commander Abdel Fatah Younis.

"These things have been happening because the basic foundation of the council is not well organized because they have a lack of experience about how to deal with national matters," says Mohamed El Obeidi, a political science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. "They're not that politically experienced in these things. On this basis there have been gaps on the NTC, the biggest and hardest is the assassination of Younis."

Qaddafi forces retreating from Brega

The rebels’ military spokesman in Benghazi, Ahmed Bani, said in the early morning hours of Tuesday that 95 percent of Tripoli was under rebel control, but that pockets of resistance were fighting back fiercely.

Qaddafi’s forces are barricaded in his compound of Bab Al Aziziyah and are using their position to indiscriminately bomb neighborhoods, he said. He added that Qaddafi was using Grad missiles to bomb civilian areas, and said Qaddafi’s son Khamis, commander of a feared military brigade, was likely inside Bab Al Aziziyah.

In the east, rebels were still fighting for the oil refinery in the city of Brega, Mr. Bani said, though some of Qaddafi’s forces are retreating from the area and heading to his hometown, Sirte. Rebels have been fighting for months for the oil facilities, which under normal operation bring in $35 million per day. They have been wary of allowing the facilities to be bombed, and he said that was why the rebels have still not taken control of them.

Al Jazeera also reported that the oil town of Ras Lanuf had fallen to rebels as well.

Qaddafi himself is still on the loose, his whereabouts a mystery, and Sirte still under control of his troops. Bani said rebel troops will not attack Sirte, but will wait for residents to rise up against the colonel. Electricity to the city has been cut for more than a week.

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