Tanks in the service of encircled Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi shelled parts of central Tripoli Monday after rebels swept into the heart of the city and crowds took to the streets to celebrate what they saw as the end of Qaddafi’s four decades in power.
Tanks emerged from Qaddafi’s stronghold in the center of the Libyan capital and were firing shells, a rebel spokesman said. Sporadic gunfire could be heard as world leaders tried to assess how long Qaddafi’s forces might stave of the inevitable and how the fractious rebel alliance might run the oil-rich desert state.
Nouri Echtiwi, a rebel spokesman in Tripoli, told Reuters, “Four hours of calm followed the street celebrations. Then tanks and pickup trucks with heavy machineguns mounted on the back came out of Bab al-Aziziya, the last of Qaddafi's bastions, and started firing into and shelling Assarin Street and the al-Khalifa area.
“They fired randomly in all directions whenever they heard gunfire.”
Despite euphoria among rebels and their backers in Tripoli and elsewhere, a rebel spokesman, identified on Al-Jazeera television only as Nasser, said government troops - mostly through snipers - still controlled “about 15 to 20 percent of the city.”
Laila Jawad, 36, who works at a Tripoli nursery, told Reuters after the rebels arrived: “We are about to be delivered from the tyrant’s rule. It’s a new thing for me. I am very optimistic. Praise be to God.”
The rebels made their entrance into the capital driving in convoy through a western neighborhood and resistance initially appeared to have largely faded away, allowing the rebels and their supporters to demonstrate in Green Square
Near Green Square youths burned the green flags of the Qaddafi government and raised the rebel flag. One rebel fighter from the Western mountain said: “We are so happy – we made it here without any problems.”
Many Tripoli residents received a text message from the rebel leadership saying: “God is Great. We congratulate the Libyan people on the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.”
“It’s over. Qaddafi’s finished,” Sa'ad Djebbar, former legal adviser to the Libyan government, told reporters.
Qaddafi, a colorful and often brutal autocrat who seized power in a military coup in 1969, said he was breaking out weapons stores to arm the population. He previously vowed he would 'blow Tripoli up' if rebels entered the city and has pledged to die on Libyan soil.
Qaddafi in his second audio broadcast in 24 hours dismissed the rebels as "rats."
“I am giving the order to open the weapons stockpiles,” Qaddafi said. “I call on all Libyans to join this fight. Those who are afraid, give your weapons to your mothers or sisters.
“Go out, I am with you until the end. I am in Tripoli. We will ... win.”
But while Qaddafi has been dealt a dead man's hand, surrounded with his supply lines cut off and faced with an internationally-backed rebel movement in his capital, he may be able to play for time instead of victory.
No one knows exactly how long Qaddafi can hold out -- or how much damage he can do in the process.