Libyan rebels begin battle for Tripoli [VIDEO]

A rebel surge on Tripoli comes as more senior aides to Col. Qaddafi appear to have defected.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
People celebrate the recent news of uprising in Tripoli against Moammar Gadhafi's regime, at the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya, early Sunday. Libyan rebels said they launched their first attack on Tripoli in coordination with NATO late Saturday.

Libyan rebels appear to have launched the battle for Tripoli Saturday. Heavy fighting and NATO bombing was reported overnight in the Libyan capital, even as rebels fighting the forces of embattled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi pushed closer to Tripoli Sunday and now say they are only 20 miles away.

The rebel surge to take Tripoli comes as more senior aides to Col. Qaddafi appear to have defected. As the rebels gain momentum, Qaddafi’s days appear numbered. But Qaddafi’s forces are fighting back fiercely, and it is unclear how long the battle for the capital will last.

Residents in Tripoli reported loud booms overnight as NATO warplanes flew overhead, and explosions and sustained gunfire in some areas of the capital, though the city had returned to relative calm by Sunday morning. Some reported that Muslim clerics had called for residents to rise up and fight from their mosque loudspeakers after residents broke the Ramadan fast. Though gunfire has been common in the city, CNN reports that it was more intense than usual Saturday night.

Rebel leader Anwar Fekini from Libya’s western mountains told the New York Times that the rebels had coordinated attacks inside the city. They have long claimed to have forces ready and waiting to rise up inside Tripoli. Some residents told the Times that rebels had sneaked into the city from the east, tricking Qaddafi’s troops who had prepared for a rebel onslaught from the direction of Zawiyah, to the west. But the BBC reports that the fighting was likely carried out by rebel elements already in Tripoli. According to the BBC, the most intense gunfire came at around 11 pm Saturday, and the city was relatively quiet by Sunday morning.

Qaddafi’s government denied that rebels were threatening the regime's power in Tripoli, and state television broadcast a live audio feed of Qaddafi in the early morning hours Sunday, in which he called the rebels “rats” and said his forces had eliminated them.

Qaddafi government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim blamed fighting in the capital on “small armed gangs.”

"Tripoli is safe, and completely under the control of the armed people committees and the volunteers and the honorable people of Tripoli," he said. "Some gunmen entered two or three areas of Tripoli. They were confronted and everything ended within half an hour."

Meanwhile, the rebels, who have made substantial gains in taking cities around Tripoli in recent weeks, were pushing forward Sunday toward the capital.

After proclaiming they had complete control of Zawiyah Saturday after a week of ferocious fighting for the strategic city, on Sunday rebels fought into the town of Jaddayim, the first city on the road to Tripoli from Zawiyah and only 25 miles to the east of the capital. The BBC reports that the rebels took the city Sunday, and there are now hundreds of rebel fighters in the town on foot and in trucks. The Associated Press reports that the rebels were coming under heavy fire from Qaddafi forces in the town.

The Daily Telegraph wonders if the push for Tripoli was premature, coming just after weeks of hard battle for Zawiyah, Gharyan, to the south of Tripoli, and Zlitan, to the east.

Now if Gaddafi's toughest forces can hold back the rebels advancing from the west … brutal security forces may be able to crush the rebellion inside Tripoli for a second time.The rebels’ blood is up, and their morale is sky-high, but they may not have logistics in place and organization to launch another offensive so soon after the one that surged north to capture Zawiyah last week and cut the coastal road which is Gaddafi’s lifeline.

“The moment” has come, but the danger for the rebels is that it may have come a bit too soon.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

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