TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Fugitive strongman Muammar Gaddafi taunted his Libyan enemies and their Western backers from his hiding place as NATO targeted his hometown and rebels announced a move to govern the country from Tripoli.
Rumours of Gaddafi or his sons being cornered, even sighted, swirled among excitable rebel fighters engaged in heavy machinegun and rocket exchanges. But even after his compound was overrun on Tuesday, hopes of a swift end to six months of war were still being frustrated by fierce rearguard actions.
Western powers demanded Gaddafi’s surrender and worked to help the opposition start developing the trappings of government and bureaucracy lacking in the oil-producing state that has been ruled by an eccentric personality cult for the past 42 years.
The United States and South Africa struck a deal to allow the release of $1.5 billion in frozen funds for humanitarian aid and other civilian needs, U.N. diplomats said.
But with loyalists holding out in the capital, in Gaddafi’s coastal home city and deep in the inland desert, violence could go on for some time, testing the ability of the government-in-waiting to keep order when it moves from its eastern stronghold.
“The tribes … must march on Tripoli,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast on a sympathetic TV channel. “Do not leave Tripoli to those rats, kill them, defeat them quickly.
“The enemy is delusional, NATO is retreating,” he shouted, sounding firmer and clearer than in a similar speech released on Wednesday. Though his enemies believe Gaddafi, 69, is still in the capital, they fear he could flee by long-prepared escape routes, using tunnels and bunkers, to rally an insurgency.
Diehards numbering perhaps in the hundreds were keeping at bay squads of irregular, anti-Gaddafi fighters who had swept into the capital on Sunday and who were now rushing from one site to another, firing assault rifles, machineguns and anti-aircraft cannon bolted to the backs of pick-up trucks.
In a southern district close to the notorious prison of Abu Salim, rebel forces launched a concerted assault, sweeping from house to house and taking prisoners.
Hunt for Gaddafi
Elsewhere, pro-Gaddafi forces shelled rebel positions at Tripoli’s airport, and NATO warplanes bombed Sirte to the east — Gaddafi’s birthplace.
The rebels’ Colonel Hisham Buhagiar said they were targeting several areas in their hunt for Gaddafi. “We are sending special forces every day to hunt down Gaddafi. We have one unit that does intelligence and other units that hunt him down,” he said.
While random gunfire broke out periodically across Tripoli, some of its 2 million residents ventured out to stock up on supplies for the first time in days.
Aid agencies sounded an alarm about food, water and medical supplies, especially for hundreds of wounded. But the new leadership said it had found huge stockpiles in Tripoli which would ease the shortages.
In a sign Libya’s rebel authority was gradually taking over the levers of power from Gaddafi, National Transitional Council official Ali Tarhouni said the body had begun its planned move from Benghazi to Tripoli.
“I proclaim the beginning of the resumption of the work of the executive office in Tripoli,” Tarhouni, who is in charge of oil and financial matters for the council, told reporters at a briefing in the capital.
The shift is seen as a crucial step to smoothing over rifts in the country, fragmented by regional and tribal divisions, particularly between east and west.
Nonetheless, in order to begin installing an administration to offer jobs to young men now bearing arms and to heal ethnic, tribal and other divisions that have been exacerbated by civil war, Libya’s new masters are anxious for hard cash quickly.
The deal between the United States and South Africa would allow the release of the funds without a Security Council vote on a draft resolution that Washington submitted on Wednesday after South Africa blocked a U.S. request to disburse the money in the U.N. Libya sanctions committee, U.N. diplomats said.
Some governments, notably in Africa where there was some sympathy for Gaddafi’s view of his Western enemies as colonialist aggressors, had been reluctant to agree to it.
Speaking in Italy, the head of the rebel government, Mahmoud Jibril said the uprising, the bloodiest so far of the Arab Spring, could fall apart if funds were not forthcoming quickly: “The biggest destabilising element would be the failure … to deliver the necessary services and pay the salaries of the people who have not been paid for months.
“Our priorities cannot be carried out by the government without having the necessary money immediately,” he said.
Fear of failure
After a meeting of officials in Istanbul, the Contact Group of allies against Gaddafi called on Libyans to avoid revenge.
“The participants attached utmost importance to the realisation of national reconciliation in Libya,” it said. “They agreed that such a process should be based on principles of inclusiveness, avoidance of retribution and vengeance.”
Gaddafi’s opponents fear that he may rally an insurgency, as did Saddam Hussein in Iraq, should he remain at large and, perhaps, in control of funds salted away for such a purpose.