Rebel entrance into Tripoli takes some by surprise

TRIPOLI Mon Aug 22, 2011 10:52am EDT

1 of 9. Libyan rebel fighters ride through the town of Maia celebrating after advancing to the outskirts of Tripoli, August 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Bob Strong

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Exuberant Libyan rebels tore up anything bearing Muammar Gaddafi's image in Tripoli on Monday and their commanders scrambled to focus them on the task at hand -- advancing methodically through sniper-infested streets into the city center.

At the state oil shipping firm in Tripoli's Gargaresh district, no one but the doorman seated behind the reception desk showed up for work. And rebel fighters were tramping in and defacing anything they could find with Gaddafi's face on it.

"I am really surprised they are here now. I thought they would come maybe in a week or so," said the doorman, Ali, of the rebels who within 12 hours had taken over large parts of Tripoli and effectively ended Gaddafi's 42-year-long grip on Libya.

Over the road, rebel fighters removed pictures of Gaddafi and the Libyan green flag, trampling and setting them alight.

Nearby streets were deserted except for rebels. Shops were shut and residential buildings had their shutters pulled tight.

"Gaddafi is finished. I am back in my home city," said Abdualziz Zintani, a shop worker-turned rebel who left the capital about three months ago to join the fight in the Western Mountains. At the time it was the closest rebel-held region to Tripoli.

But one of the biggest challenges facing rebel commanders was to contain the enthusiasm of their fighters, who were desperate to press forward to Green Square in central Tripoli.

"Dear brothers, we're going house by house. Let's not hurry. Let's clear the area first of snipers," said a man walking in front of other fighters, speaking through a loudspeaker. He added: "The victory is ours. God is great, God is great."

SNIPER RISK

Checkpoints were set up to help control the flow of excited insurgent fighters. Outside the state oil shipping firm, dozens of them were gathering.

"Five hundred meters up the road it's dangerous. There are many snipers," said a rebel called Ahmed wearing a T-shirt with a slogan on it saying: "Libya is free."

"We will clear the area and then the rest of our brothers can follow," he said.

Like many others he just arrived with comrades from Zintan in the Western Mountains to join the march to the capital.

Their goal was Green Square because it is closely associated with Gaddafi. Every year Gaddafi has reviewed his troops on the square, and for the past few months crowds of his supporters have gathered there daily. For the rebels, to stand in the square would seal their victory.

"We call it now the Square of Martyrs," Ahmed said while sitting in the shade of a closed fashion shop.

After about 30 minutes, rebel fighters driving Toyota pickup trucks fitted with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers arrived to clear the road ahead of snipers and other Gaddafi loyalists.

Commanders moved the lightly armed rebels to one side to make way for the heavy weapons.

"God is great!" said two fighters with beards driving a pickup with an anti-aircraft gun on the back as they moved off. Gunshots could be heard further up the road. Soon after, the rest of the rebels moved forward toward Green Square.

At the oil company complex, computers and air conditioning were still working in the reception area from Sunday night, when the last shift had left the building.

"Yesterday everybody came to work, today nobody. I am the only one who came to work this morning," doorman Ali said.

"Thank God it's over. I am happy," he said while some insurgents waiting at a nearby checkpoint came in to the use the building's toilets and kitchen.

"Libya is free. Freedom, freedom," said a fighter called Abulkarim. "Nobody can stop us. Gaddafi is crazy but now he is gone," he said. "It's over."

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