Witness: Joy, chaos, frenzy as rebels overrun Gaddafi compound

TRIPOLI Wed Aug 24, 2011 4:31am EDT

Libyan rebels celebrate at Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 23, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

Libyan rebels celebrate at Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Louafi Larbi

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Hundreds of triumphant Libyan rebels flooded into the last bastion of Muammar Gaddafi's power on Tuesday, looting in his Tripoli compound for weapons and trophies, and shouting "Gaddafi is finished."

Rebels in pickup trucks broke into the heavily fortified base -- off limits to ordinary people throughout Gaddafi's 42-year rule -- through one of the main gates, shooting in the air in jubilation as they searched for the elusive leader.

Gaddafi's white Bedouin tent where he used to receive visiting foreign dignitaries was set on fire, and the smoke from the blaze wafted through a children's playground nearby. The compound's walls had been damaged in the battle.

A golden statue of Gaddafi was destroyed and its head decapitated. A group of rebels stamped on the head and kicked it around, laughing and shouting anti-Gaddafi insults.

One bearded rebel, sporting a thick gold chain around his drab olive-green t-shirt and Gaddafi's flamboyant military peaked hat, told Sky News he had snatched his trophy from Gaddafi's bedroom.

Asked to describe how he managed to do that, he smiled and said in English: "It wasn't hard. I went to Gaddafi's bedroom and I was, like, 'Oh my God'. Then I found this. Oh my goodness!"

He added: "A lot of friends of mine died on the front. They should have been here with me today."

Gaddafi's trademark golf cart, in which the Libyan leader appeared frequently at home and on foreign visits, was also seized by rebels and paraded around the compound.

GOLDEN FIST

Some rebels tore Gaddafi posters up. Others tried to pull down a giant golden statue of a hand crushing a U.S. warplane, a symbol of Gaddafi's contempt for the West. One rebel clambered to the top of it.

"Libya is free! Gaddafi is finished. We are all free now," they yelled from the back of their vehicles which were mounted with heavy weapons.

Others jumped off their cars, shouting "God is greatest," waving rebel flags and firing guns in celebration.

Black plumes of smoke swirled above the 6 sq-km (2.3 sq mile) complex, and fighting appeared to be still under way deep inside the base where snipers had fired at the advancing rebels.

"Can you believe this? This is the end of 42 years of tyranny!" one rebel shouted.

"We don't want anyone like Gaddafi. We want justice," another rebel said on Sky.

As rebels rampaged through the vast compound, some fired angry shots at a building ruined in a 1986 air strike ordered by then President Ronald Reagan, an iconic site for Gaddafi loyalists.

Behind its imposing, olive green walls, scenes of chaos filled the once orderly, neatly kept compound, described in the past as Gaddafi's Pentagon.

Heavy gunfire and explosions echoed around the base, its palm tree studded lawns now turned into patches of smoldering land. Many buildings were damaged.

Gaddafi used to gather supporters in the compound throughout the conflict as part of his vast propaganda machine. A television camera that was used to broadcast these images daily to the Libyan people was now lying broken on the ground.

A group of rebels looted an armory in part of the compound, seizing new sniper rifles in plastic cases, a Reuters witness said.

But their primary target was Gaddafi, assumed to be hiding with his sons somewhere inside the vast base which is believed to sit atop a network of tunnels and bunkers.

"He (Gaddafi) is underground," one fighter told Sky News. "We are looking you."

(Writing by Maria Golovnina, editing by Peter Millership)

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