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Rebel siege of Gadhafi forces in residential buildings leaves sewers running red with blood
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) ' A rebel onslaught Thursday on a neighborhood where snipers loyal to Moammar Gadhafi had holed up in residential buildings left bullet-riddled bodies in the streets, houses in flames and sewers running red with blood. Gadhafi, on the run with his regime in tatters, still tried to rally his followers to kill the rebels.
The battle for the Abu Salim neighborhood, which rebels appeared to have won by sundown, was part of their struggle to take complete control of Tripoli, four days after they swept into the capital and sparked the collapse of Gadhafi's regime. Even though they have captured the leader's compound and seized most of the city, the rebels know they cannot declare a full victory in the 6-month-old civil war as long as Gadhafi has not been captured or killed.
There was no sign of the leader or his sons, despite rumors that swirled around the battlefield that they may be hiding inside some of the besieged buildings.
"Fill the streets and the squares. Don't be afraid of the raids," Gadhafi said in a new audio message broadcast on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station. "Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, and kill them," he added. He lashed out at the West, saying "NATO can't remain in the air all the time" and Libya is "not for France and Sarkozy."
Abu Salim, near Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound seized by rebels, is thought to be the last major stronghold of regime brigades in Tripoli, though there has also been ongoing fighting around the airport.
Fierce battles have raged for the past few days in Abu Salim and many of Gadhafi's defenders who fled his Bab al-Aziziya compound after rebels captured it Tuesday were thought to have moved to the adjacent neighborhood.
The fighters in long lines of pickup trucks with weapons mounted on the back or on foot, dressed in shorts with machine guns, moved methodically through the neighborhood trying to clear buildings of Gadhafi defenders. They fired anti-aircraft guns and rockets.
The streets were strewn with bullet-ridden corpses from both sides, some on fire. The rebels covered their own with blankets. Streams of blood ran down the streets and turned sewers red.
Deafening explosions from mortars and the whistle of sniper fire filled air clogged with smoke from burning buildings and weapons fire.
Civilians were in some of the buildings and caught up in the crossfire.
A mother ran out of one the buildings under siege, screaming: "My son needs first aid." Behind her, the building's glass windows were shattered and black smoked poured out of a burning apartment.
Amid the din, the call to prayer wafted out from neighborhood mosques.
The rebels, many from the western, rebel-held city of Misrata, were spurred on by the rumors that one of Gadhafi's sons might be hiding in the buildings.
"Today is a crucial moment. This huge resistance suggests there is a big person there," said Youssef Aradat, a rebel fighter with a beard and aviator sunglasses. "It is a matter of hours. Now we can kill him. We will go room by room, flat by flat, street by street," he added, mimicking Gadhafi's own words.
Even as Gadhafi's grip on power slipped more ever day, he still tried to keep up the facade that he has the upper hand. He has repeatedly vowed to fight until "victory or martyrdom."
"Take over the rooftops, the mosques, the side streets; there will be no safe place for the enemies," he said in the audio message. He warned that the rebels will try to go into homes and rape their women. "They will enter your houses and deprive you of your honor"
Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, in a call to AP's Cairo office, said Gadhafi was still in Libya and his morale was high. Ibrahim refused to say where Gadhafi was hiding, but said he "is indeed leading the battle for our freedom and independence." Ibrahim, whose voice was clearly recognizable, said he was also in hiding in Libya and constantly on the move. All of the leader's family are fine," Ibrahim said, adding that top military and political aides remained with Gadhafi.
Ibrahim claimed Gadhafi's forces controlled a "good portion" of the capital ' a claim that contradicts what reporters can see ' and other cities and towns.
In Abu Salim, the barrage that lasted for hours ended at sunset and rebels fighters went door to door through largely deserted apartment buildings, occasionally dragging out suspected regime loyalists.
Some were dark-skinned men wearing camouflage cutoffs and T-shirts had their hands tied their hands behind their back before they were driven away. The rebels have long claimed Gadhafi had been hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to bolster his army.
Some rebels looted the buildings, taking computers from a devastated fire station and printers from a nearby market area.
The buildings in Abu Salim were still covered with pro-Gadhafi graffiti, which has been largely covered over in the rest of the city.
Earlier in the day, at least two dozen bodies were discovered around the burned up remnants of a camp for Gadhafi sympathizers just outside his Bab al-Aziziya compound near Abu Salim. The tents were still smoldering and the bodies of mainly dark skinned men were scattered around the grassy traffic circle, some with hands tied behind their back.
It is not clear who they were, but they appear to have been activists camping near the compound in defiance of NATO airstrikes over the past months. If they were killed by rebels, it raises the specter of atrocities against civilians.
Rebels say one of their key targets now is Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Tripoli, but acknowledged that capturing that city would not be easy because Gadhafi's fellow tribesmen were expected to put up a fierce fight. Opposition leaders have said they were trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the city.
The rebels said the supply lines to Sirte would be too long and they are short of funds and supplies.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council, called on people living in loyalist-held towns to join the fight against Gadhafi's soldiers.
"I am appealing to the areas not yet liberated to join the revolution," he told reporters in Benghazi. "There is no excuse for them not to join."
Fawzi Abu Ketf, deputy defense minister of the rebel National Transitional Council, said fighting was raging Thursday outside Bin Jawad, 400 miles (650 kilometers) east of Tripoli, but he had no details. Gadhafi loyalists ambushed rebels advancing toward the city on Wednesday, killing at least 20 of them.
The ambush showed that pro-regime forces retain the ability to strike back even as the rebels tighten their control over the nation's capital.
Rebels also have seized several parts of Sebha, a Gadhafi stronghold deep in the south, including the main commercial Gamal Abdel-Nasser street, according to rebel official Adel al-Zintani, who is in daily telephone contact with rebel commanders in the desert city.
Four Italian journalists taken at gunpoint in Libya were also freed Thursday in a raid on the house where they were being held, an official said.
Associated Press writer Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Donna Bryson in Cairo contributed to this report.