Libya rebels lose territory as battle for Tripoli deepens

A quick rebel victory is fading into uncertainty as Qaddafi gunmen are fighting back and Muammar Qaddafi's politically powerful son Saif al-Islam reemerges.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Rebel fighters observe the fighting near the main Muammar Qaddafi compound in Bab al-Aziziya district in Tripoli, LIbya, Tuesday, Aug. 23, where some of the heaviest fighting took place. The compound, which has been heavily damaged by NATO airstrikes, has emerged as one of the centers of government resistance since tanks rolled out and began firing at rebels trying to get in.

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Two days after rebels exulted in their swift takeover of Tripoli, signaling the endgame for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the capital has become a stage for a potentially protracted battle between rebels and loyalists.

The rebels expected a decisive victory after entering the city easily this weekend, Bloomberg reports, but they are still locked in battle with Mr. Qaddafi's fighters inside and outside Tripoli.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the rebels pulled back from much of the territory in the city that they took earlier in the week and seemed to be in control of only a "slice of land leading from the western edge to near the city center." Qaddafi gunmen have staked out several neighborhoods and Green Square, where rebel supporters celebrated Sunday night, is now a "no-man's land."

The scenes in Tripoli undermined early impressions that forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled the oil-rich Mediterranean country for nearly 42 years, had been all but neutralized. Instead, the leader remains unaccounted for as fighting continues. The unease suggested instead that the regime's end, while broadly expected, may bring more bloodshed, this time in a densely populated urban theater.

According to the Associated Press, the fiercest fighting took place around the Bab al-Aziziya compound, where Qaddafi, his family, and his closest advisers have barricaded themselves for much of the war. On Monday, government tanks repelled rebel forces attempting to infiltrate the compound.

NATO has put its air campaign in overdrive in the past two days, hitting at least 40 targets in Tripoli – the highest number in one location since its intervention began in March.

In a major blow, Qaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, reappeared after rebels had claimed to have captured him, saying that the rebel forces in the city had walked into a trap and that loyalist fighters had broken the back of the rebels.

He walked into the Rixos Hotel, where the government has sequestered foreign journalists, and offered to take foreign journalists on a tour to prove the regime's continued control over the capital.

"I will take you [the press] on a tour in Tripoli in the most heated areas, and you will see that all is secure, the world will know it's secure," he said.

The rebels said yesterday that they had captured Saif and were considering sending him to the International Criminal Court, but he denied today that he had ever been in rebel custody. The rebels had also said they captured his older brother, Mohammad, who has now escaped, Al Jazeera reports.

The false reports about the two Qaddafi sons raises questions about the credibility of the rebel leadership, which was already in doubt, The New York Times reports.

While the battle for Tripoli continues, two cities – Sabha and Sirte – remain firmly in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists. On Monday, NATO stopped a Scud missile fired from Sirte toward Misurata, the Times reports. Today, the rebels halted an Army convoy traveling toward Tripoli from Sirte, killing dozens of Qaddafi's troops, the AP reports.

Qaddafi has repeatedly vowed to remain in Tripoli "until the end," but he could also seek refuge in Sirte, his hometown. Almost all of western and eastern Libya is now under rebel control.

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