After a day of heavy fighting, Libyan rebels stormed Colonel Gaddafi’s main Tripoli compound, looting weapons and celebrating the apparent defeat of Gaddafi atop the iconic gold statues of his regime.

Taking control of the compound is a critical step in the campaign to oust Gaddafi, even if the control lies only in the minds of Libyan citizens. As The New York Times reports this morning:

“While the crackle of gunfire and rumble of explosions could still be heard across a confused and wary Libyan capital, with the possibility of more fighting in days to come, the rebel invasion and pillaging of the Bab al-Aziziya compound seemed to represent an important symbolic moment for the rebel movement seeking to oust Colonel Qaddafi and his sons from power.”

Check out this raw footage by Associated Press as rebels fought their way into the compound:

But there was one image akin to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, Iraq back in April 2003. As David D. Kirkpatrick, Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone write in The NY Times:

“In what could become a defining image of the day, video footage on Al Jazeera showed fighters scrambling to upend one of Colonel Qaddafi’s favorite sculptures: a giant fist crushing an American warplane. Colonel Qaddafi installed the sculpture in front of a house in the compound that was bombed in 1986 on the orders of President Reagan, at a time when Libya was considered a pariah state. The wrecked building became Colonel Qaddafi’s backdrop for major speeches, including his defiant challenge to the rebels at the start of their uprising six months ago.”

One eloquent rebel who went inside Gaddafi’s bedroom and stole the dictator’s hat, gold chain and a feathered duster — described as a “masonic sort of bushy thing” by a Sky News journalist — was interviewed wearing the looted goods, promising to give the hat to his father who has lived through the Gaddafi regime for decades:

As well as looting parts of Gaddafi’s wardrobe, rebel fighters rejoiced in riding Gaddafi’s personal golf buggy:

More alarming than pilfering the opulent riches of Gaddafi are reports that huge amount of guns were taken from the compound. Sean Smith, a photographer at The Guardian, describes the scene:

“Excited rebels were lugging out plastic crates full of guns. But although the scene was one of jubilation it was tempered by the terror of being shot. Just as I was leaving I saw a man with a gunshot wound to his calf. Half of it was missing… It didn’t felt like a monumental moment; it was too chaotic and uncertain for that. People were worried about a counter-offensive.”

The New York Times painted a vivid picture: “Many of the buildings were looted, and rebel fighters could be seen walking around with high-quality advanced machine guns and, in one case, a gold-plated rifle. Some of the looted weapons were still wrapped in plastic.”

But many were worried about the stash of weapons being taken. “Incredible scenes at the compound today — the worry will now be the huge numbers of berretta pistols & rifles stolen by anti-Gaddafi hoards,” tweeted Tom Rayner, a producer for Sky News. He later added: “A number of rebel military leaders at compound were apologetic about ‘mistake’ of allowing such a mass of weapons be taken by non-fighters”.

A group of 30 international journalists — from organisations including the BBC and CNN — remain trapped in the Rioxs hotel in Tripoli, a hotel near the compound which remains controlled by pro-Gaddafi forces. CNN reporter Matthew Chance has been livetweeting from inside the hotel.

@mchancecnn Went back to room earlier & the door had been kicked in, things rifled through. Nothing stolen.
@mchancecnn Waiting in the #Rixos. Gunfire inside the hotel. Going on air.
@mchancecnn Shooting around #Rixos; journalists moving upstairs to safety
@mchancecnn Sniper took pot-shot at hotel & we all took cover. Journalists in #Rixos are fine, keeping together but have limited perspective on news.
@mchancecnn Everyone frightened & concerned – doesn’t feel like a 5 star hotel. Some water left but food at risk of ruin.
@mchancecnn We’d like to leave to a safer location and negotiate an exit, but we are being prevented from doing so.

Dario Lopez-Mills from Associated Press wrote a fascinating piece outlining what it’s like to be stuck in the “$400-a-night prison”, prevented to leave by pro-Gaddafi troops, apart from when Gaddafi’s son turned up at the hotel yesterday to give the journalists a tour of Bab al-Aziziya,  just hours before the compound was stormed:

“A hotel on the sidelines at the start of a conflict may suddenly find itself engulfed in fighting. Or a beleaguered government may decide to restrict reporters as part of a propaganda campaign.

“The Rixos has been so cut off that we often haven’t even been able to tell who was in control of the streets outside. Over the weekend, the area appeared to be in government hands. As rebels approached, our minders got jittery, then belligerent.

“One young gunman grew paranoid that journalists were feeding information to the rebels and began threatening us. Others simply left, in some cases shaking hands with reporters and saying goodbye. The government’s main spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, departed soon after his German wife and infant.

“For a while we were alone. Then the pro-government gunmen returned, surrounding the hotel with heavy weaponry — even as rebels reportedly took Gadhafi’s compound a few blocks away. We don’t know for sure.”

But where is Gaddafi in all this? His whereabouts remain unknown but Gaddafi has had months to plan his escape from the capital. He may be on the run for months a la Hussein, suggests Dan Murphy in The Christian Science Monitor:

“There are rumors that the area is riddled with tunnels and hidden bunkers, and many people have speculated that he could be squirreled away underground. But similar rumors in Benghazi — that the main barracks there were also riddled with tunnels — were proven false after the city fell to the uprising in February. And there’s no guarantee that Qaddafi is in Tripoli at all. The rebel advance on Tripoli last week made it clear that his control of the capital was precarious, and you don’t stay alive as a dictator for generations without a strong sense of self-preservation.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey