Libya war: Intense battles rage in Tripoli as search for Gadhafi goes on
TRIPOLI (AP) — British warplanes struck a large bunker in Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, his largest remaining stronghold, on Friday as NATO turned its attention to loyalist forces battling advancing Libyan rebels in the area.
The airstrikes came a day after fierce clashes erupted in the Libyan capital. The rebels said pro-Gadhafi forces were still shelling the airport and sporadic shooting was reported elsewhere, but the streets of Tripoli were relatively calm on Friday.
The military alliance that NATO warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near the city, which is 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Rebels are trying to occupy Sirte but expect fierce resistance from tribesman and townspeople loyal to Gadhafi.
The rebel leadership, apparently trying to avoid the bloodshed that occurred in the battle for Tripoli, is working behind the scenes to secure the peaceful surrender of Sirte, Libyan rebel officials have said.
But the latest NATO airstrikes on loyalist vehicles defending Sirte appeared aimed at paving the way for the rebel advance if a negotiated settlement proves impossible.
In London, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of the Gadhafi's regime were in Sirte "where they are still continuing to wage war on the people of Libya." He said NATO would continue to strike at the Gadhafi forces' military capability.
"The regime needs to recognize that the game is up," Fox said.
Maj. Gen. Nick Pope, a British military spokesman, said royal Air Force jets also hit a large headquarters bunker in Sirte with a salvo of air-to-surface missiles.
NATO also bombed surface-to-air missile facilities near Tripoli, a statement said. Officials say Gadhafi's forces are trying to reconstitute their anti-aircraft weapons to pose a threat to humanitarian and civilian flights into Tripoli airport.
A rebel field commander in Tripoli, Sathi Shneibi, claimed the airport was largely under opposition control but Gadhafi's forces were shelling it from a nearby military base that had been controlled by Gadhafi's son Khamis.
The rebels, meanwhile, were searching for the remnants of pro-Gadhafi forces in buildings in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which saw some of the heaviest fighting on Thursday.
Seven detained men and one woman were sitting in a pickup truck in a rural area between Abu Salim and the airport.
When asked who they were, Shneibi said, "Things are still not stable and we are arresting anybody we find suspicious and taking them to the military council."
Meanwhile, dozens of decomposing bodies were piled up in an abandoned hospital in Tripoli, a grim testament to the chaos roiling the capital as Libyan rebels clash with pro-Gadhafi forces.
The four-story hospital was in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting this week, although the facility was empty and it could not be determined when the men had been killed. The floors were covered with shattered glass and bloodstains, and medical equipment was strewn about.
One hospital room had 21 bodies lying on gurneys, while 20 others were in the hospital's courtyard next to the parking lot — all of them darker skinned than most Libyans, covered with blankets. Gadhafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa.
With Gadhafi still on the run and vowing to fight to the death, the rebels have struggled to take complete control of the Libya capital after sweeping into the city on Sunday. The fight in Abu Salim has been particularly bloody.
Bursts of gunfire were heard coming from an area near the neighborhood before daybreak Friday. Smoke rose from the area but a rebel at the scene early Friday said the fighting in Abu Salim had ended by nightfall Thursday.
Men believed to be Gadhafi supporters or fighters were left moaning and calling for water at a clinic attached to a fire station in Abu Salim. Curious men from the neighborhood climbed stairs to look at the men, but none offered help.
One of the wounded said he was from Niger and denied any links to Gadhafi. Asked why he was in Libya, he said, "I really don't know." He did not give his name.
Gadhafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, and many others are in Libya as migrant workers. In the turmoil since the rebellion broke out, migrant workers from southern Africa have been harassed.
Associated Press reporters flagged down a cab to take some of the wounded from the clinic to a hospital. The driver at first agreed, but men from the neighborhood intervened, saying the men would have to be interrogated before they could be moved.
The opposition's interim government, meanwhile, moved forward with efforts to establish political control despite the continuing violence.
The National Transitional Council announced it is moving from the country's second-largest city of Benghazi in the east to the Tripoli.
A minister in the rebel government said Gadhafi's capture is not a prerequisite for setting up a new administration in the capital.
"We can start rebuilding our country," Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni of the NTC told a news conference late Thursday. "He (Gadhafi) is the one who is basically in the sewer, moving from one sewer to another."
"I have a final message for everyone who is still carrying arms against the revolution," he said, "to let go of their arms and go back to their homes, and we promise not to take revenge against them."
Even with his regime in tatters, Gadhafi has tried to rally his followers to kill the rebels who waged war for six months to bring down Libya's ruler of 42 years.
"Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, and kill them," Gadhafi said in an audio message broadcast Thursday on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station.