(Updates with capture of compound)
By William Maclean
LONDON Aug 23 The fortified Tripoli compound
stormed by Libyan rebels on Tuesday was the seat of Muammar
Gaddafi's political power and the principal base of loyalist
fighters trying to rescue his 42-year-old rule.
Gaddafi loyalist fighters confronted with an invasion of
rebels since the weekend had sought to use his Bab al-Azizyah
bastion as a springboard from which to carve out a loyalist zone
and chip away at rebel control of adjoining neighbourhoods.
The encampment, surrounded by metre-thick olive green walls,
is believed to sit atop a network of tunnels and bunkers that
lead to adjoining districts, including possibly a subterranean
route to the coast.
"This is Gaddafi's Pentagon," said Noman Benotman, a senior
analyst at the British think tank Quilliam and a former Libyan
Islamist opposition guerrilla commander.
He said tunnels forking out from the complex to nearby
districts gave his fighters precious access to supplies. Many
could have fled before the final attack.
Long the seat of Gaddafi's power as well as his main Tripoli
home, the barracks may well be the final battleground of Libya's
war. Even if Gaddafi is not there, its loss inflicted a
potentially crippling symbolic defeat.
If Gaddafi is at the six sq-km (2.3 sq mi) base, located
south of Tripoli at the northern end of the Airport Highway,
there is a fair chance he is in a tunnel under it rather than in
a fortified room above ground.
The compound has often been targeted by NATO air strikes,
but it is still defended by tanks and snipers, a fact that
suggests Gaddafi or at least some key aides are nearby.
The site was dotted with tents, residential buildings,
security encampments, and the cratered remains of a house bombed
by U.S. warplanes in 1986 and kept in ruins as a memorial.
Rebels fired their guns in celebration before the building.
Umar al-Hariri, a military official of the rebel Libyan
National Transitional Council, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper
in June that the barracks were linked to underground tunnels up
to 30 km (20 miles) long, some of which led to the sea.
Built in the era of King Idris, overthrown by Gaddafi in the
1969 putsch that brought him to power, the site was reinforced
in the 1980s using an array of foreign contractors.
(Reporting by William Maclean)