TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- Libyan rebels said they launched their first attack on Tripoli in coordination with NATO late Saturday, and Associated Press reporters heard unusually heavy gunfire and explosions in the capital. The fighting erupted just hours after opposition fighters captured the key city of Zawiya nearby.
Gunbattles and mortar rounds were heard clearly at the hotel where foreign correspondents stay in Tripoli. NATO aircraft made heavy bombing runs after nightfall, with loud explosions booming across the city.
"We planned this operation with NATO, our Arab associates and our rebel fighters in Tripoli with commanders in Benghazi," Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the rebel leadership council, told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera. Benghazi, hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, is the rebels' de facto capital.
Abdel-Jalil they said chose to start the attack on Tripoli on the 20th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which fell on Saturday. The date marks the ancient Islamic Battle of Badr, when Muslims conquered the holy city of Mecca in A.D. 624.
A couple hours after the rebels said they had attacked Tripoli, state television ran what appeared to be a live audio message by Gadhafi. He did not appear on television but sounded like he was calling the message in on a poor phone line which crackled at times. He announced the time and date twice to prove that he was speaking live.
Gadhafi condemned the rebels as traitors and "vermin" who are tearing Libya apart and said they were being chased from city to city -- a mirror image of reality.
"Libyans wanted to enjoy a peaceful Ramadan," he said. "Instead they have been made into refugees. What are we? Palestinians?"
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim appeared on Libyan television to deny there was an uprising in Tripoli. But he acknowledged that there was some kind of unusual activity.
"Sure there were some armed militants who escaped into some neighborhoods and there were some scuffles, but we dealt with it within a half hour and it is now calm," he said.
The claims from both sides could not immediately be independently verified.
If the rebel did indeed attack Tripoli, it would be the first time in the 6-month-old uprising. The rebels made early gains in the revolt, capturing most of the east of the country and rising up in a few other major cities such as Zawiya and Misrata. But Gadhafi's forces fought back and until a week ago, the civil war had been mired in a stalemate.
Last weekend, rebels from the western mountains near the border with Tunisia made a dramatic advance into Zawiya, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, and captured parts of the city.
Gadhafi appeared increasingly isolated as the fighters advanced closer to Tripoli, a metropolis of 2 million people, from the west, south and east and gained control of major supply roads into the capital.
After hard-fought battles for a week in Zawiya, the rebels finally wrested the city's oil refinery, central square and hospital from Gadhafi's forces and drove them out in a major victory on Saturday that clearly swung momentum in their favor.
Hours later, the attack on Tripoli was claimed.
Col. Fadlallah Haroun, a military commander in Benghazi, said the battles marked the beginning of Operation Mermaid -- a nickname for Tripoli. He also said the assault was coordinated with NATO. Haroun told the AP that weapons were assembled and sent by tugboats to Tripoli on Friday night.
"The fighters in Tripoli are rising up in two places at the moment -- some are in the Tajoura neighborhood and the other is near the Matiga (international) airport," he told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera. Tajoura has been known since the beginning of the uprising in February as the Tripoli neighborhood most strongly opposed to Gadhafi's regime.
Earlier Saturday, the government organized a trip for reporters to the airport to show them it was still in government hands.
A representative for Tripoli on the rebel leadership council told the AP that rebels were surrounding almost every neighborhood in the capital, and there was especially heavy fighting in Fashloum, Tajoura and Souq al-Jomaa.
Those three neighborhoods have been bubbling with discontent ever since the beginning of the Libya uprising. They paid the highest price in deaths when protesters took the streets in anti-Gadhafi protests, only to be met with live ammunition by government militiamen.
"We don't have exact numbers yet, but we are hearing that many fighters have fallen -- very likely over 100," said Mohammed al-Harizi.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman visited Benghazi on Saturday.
"Gadhafi's days are numbered," he said. "The best case scenario is for Gadhafi to step down now ... that's the best protection for civilians."
In Benghazi, there were thousands celebrating in the main city square, shooting fireworks and guns into the air, and waving the rebel tricolor flag.
The taking of Zawiya, a city of 200,000, cleared the last major hurdle to a rebel march on Tripoli from the west. Rebels said Gadhafi's troops put up little resistance before fleeing their posts in Zawiya's hospital and multistory buildings around the main square -- another sign suggesting that the Libyan dictator's 42-year-old regime is crumbling.
Trucks and cars packed with rebels as well as civilians drove around Zawiya's central square, honking horns, flashing V-for-victory signs and yelling "Allahu akbar" or "God is great!" An ambulance crew posed for photos on the sidewalk while a rebel called through a loudspeaker on his truck, "Zawiya is liberated!"
Still, regime troops kept firing rockets and mortars at the city from positions in the east even after rebels said they drove them out, and thunderous booms echoed across the city. The central hospital was hit by mortar rounds early Saturday, several hours after it was taken by rebels. The attack badly damaged the operating rooms, punching a hole into one of the outer walls. Metal slats from the ceiling were strewn across the floor, and soot-covered the operating tables.
Rebels also claimed that they captured the city of Zlitan, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, after more than two months of fighting.
"Zlitan is now completely liberated after a severe fight, and for the first time I can say we have control over it," Bani told reporters Saturday.
In Zawiya, fighters were bogged down around the central square for much of the week, held back by mortar, rocket and anti-aircraft fire from Gadhafi's troops. However, on Friday afternoon, rebel reinforcements arrived and pushed toward the square and the hospital, driving out regime forces before nightfall, said 21-year-old rebel fighter Mohammed Abu Daya.
The rebels said Saturday that they were now driving Gadhafi's forces even farther east, toward the village of Jedaim on the outskirts of Zawiya.
Gadhafi's forces fired rockets and mortars at the city, killing a doctor his wife and their 9-month-old baby when a mortar hit their home, medics said.
Zawiya's main square was covered with traces of the recent fighting. Nearly every window in the surrounding hotel, banks and government office buildings was shattered, and bullet and shrapnel holes marred every wall. Shelling had collapsed two floors of one of the five buildings near the square that had been used as Gadhafi sniper positions.
The dead bodies of two government fighters lay in the square's central plaza, covered by blankets. Rebels held their breath as they passed the bodies, which some said had been there for days.
Zawiya native Faiz Ibrahim, 42, took great pleasure in walking safely through his hometown's central square. Ibrahim, trained as an engineer, had taken up arms to defend the city early in the uprising, but went underground when Gadhafi's forces retook the town. He came out of hiding as soon as rebels from the south entered the city."We praise God that we can come here now that we have liberated the square," he said, his Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder. "We have to see all the destruction that it took to get them out." ___ Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this report
Al Jazeera has exclusive video of Libyan rebels ambushing Gaddafi loyalists at a checkpoint. According to the news outlet, "this Al Jazeera Exclusive footage gives an inside view of the struggle as the fighters push towards Sirte, the last stronghold of Gaddafi."
Video below (via Al Jazeera):
Muneer Masoud Own, 33, who made a living doing manual labor, said forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi slaughtered nearly 150 prisoners as rebels closed in on Tripoli last week.
Charred bodies littered the ground around a warehouse -- roughly 30 feet by 45 feet -- where the detainees were kept. A volunteer who helped remove them, Bashir Own, estimated that he had seen about 150 bodies. He is not related to Muneer Own, who said he barely escaped an ordeal that started about a month ago.
Dozens of Libyans perform the last late afternoon prayer of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Freedom Square in the eastern Libyan port city of Benghazi on August 29, 2011.
Libya rebels claim to have "almost certain information" that Gaddafi's intelligence chief was killed.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Libya rebels have "almost certain information" that Gaddafi intelligence chief killed on Sat. -Spokesman tells al-Arabiya TV|
Al Jazeera's James Bays filed a dazzling report from Libya on the situation of African migrants in the embattled country. Migrants claim to be assaulted and are locked up in prisons until rebel fighters made sure they did not work as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime.
Watch Bays' report here:
The rebel commander in Tripoli Al Mahdi Al Haraqi told Reuters that he had confirmation that Khamis Gaddafi has been killed in a clash near Ben Walid.
He was taken to a hospital but died of his wounds and was buried in the area, Al-Haragi said, without giving the timing. No independent confirmation of the death was available.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the United States could not yet independently confirm Khamis' death but said similar information was being received in Washington from "reliable sources."
Rebels claimed twice before Khamis Gaddafi was killed.
Libya's National Transitional Council reacted strongly on the message that relatives of Gaddafi would have arrived in Algeria, Reuters reports.
A spokesperson for the NTC said it considers sheltering members of Gaddafi's family an act of aggression.
"We have promised to provide a just trial to all those criminals and therefore we consider this an act of aggression," spokesman Mahmoud Shamman told Reuters.
"We are warning anybody not to shelter Gaddafi and his sons. We are going after them in any place to find them and arrest them," he said.
A rebel commander in Tripoli claims Gaddafi's son Khamis has been killed in clashes in southern Libya.
Khamis was claimed killed twice before.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Gaddafi's son Khamis killed in clashes in southern Libya -Rebel commander in Tripoli|
AFP reports Italian energy company ENI reached an agreement with the Libyan National Transitional Council to take up gas supplies to Italy.
Libyan rebels they seek the extradition of Gaddafi's family members who fled to Algeria.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Libya rebels say will seek extradition of Gaddafi family from Algeria|
Rebel commanders say Khamis Gaddafi, one of Colonel Gaddafi's most feared sons, has been killed in an air strike south of Tripoli.
Algeria confirms two of Gaddafi's sons, his daughter Aicha and his wife are in the country.
|@ Reuters : FLASH: Algeria confirms two of Gaddafi's sons, wife and daughter are in the country - Al-Jazeera TV|
Reuters reports Khamis Gaddafi, the Colonel's infamous ... son, may be next to be places on the ICC's most wanted list. The International Criminal Court earlier approved warrants for Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam.
ICC prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo told Reuters in an interview that "Khamis should also be prosecuted because Khamis was the commander of the brigade that was more active on some of the crimes."
Official reportedly confirm three of Gaddafi's sons, his daughter and wife have arrived in Algeria.
From the Associated Press:
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The chairman of the African Union says Libyan rebels may be indiscriminately killing black people in Libya because they have confused innocent migrant workers with mercenaries.
Chairman Jean Ping told reporters Monday that this is one of the reasons the AU is refusing to recognize the National Transitional Council as the country's interim government.
He said "We need clarification because the NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries .... They are killing normal workers."
Libya's rebel National Transitional Council appears to have secured Libya's capital after a week of fierce fighting with loyalists to Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
He said there was no doubt the council now controlled the capital city and called on both sides to "stop the killing."
Libyan rebels captured Gaddafi's personal 'Afriqiyah Airbus' in Tripoli.
Libyan rebels leave Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's 'Afriqiyah One' Airbus A340 plane at Tripoli airport on August 29, 2011.
The tribe of Abdel Fattah Younes said it will take justice into their own hands if rebel leaders do not identify the commander's killers, Reuters reports. "After Eid, that is the final deadline," Tarek, one of Younes' sons said in an interview with Reuters.
Abdel Fattah Younes was killed on July 28 after he was summoned by rebel leaders for questioning. Libyan authorities identified two people who allegedly carried out the assassination, but head of the NTC Mustafa Abdel Jalil had told reporters on Wednesday the suspected killers would be arrested "when the higher interests of this revolution will not be damaged."
Al Jazeera reporters in Tripoli said rebels have surrounded Gaddafi's hometown Sirte. The main push in the battle for Sirte is expected to come from the east, the channel reports.
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel Hamid reported from the eastern front near Sirte that rebels are holding off attacks, as they want to give tribal leaders in the city time to negotiations.
Andrew Simons, on the western front near the city, reported small fights between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists.
On Monday, NATO intensified airstrikes on Sirte.
The rebel flag waving over the Libyan embassy in Moscow.
A leaked United Nations report proposes elections in Libya within nine months, Al Jazeera reports. The UN would be looking to send a small contingent of 'Blue Barrets' to the country, if requested by the Libyan authorities and authorized by the Security Council.
"If requested by the Libyans and authorized by the Council, the UN could contribute to confidence-building and to the implementation of agreed military tasks, through unarmed UN military observer (UNMOs)," Al Jazeera quotes the document.
Read more on Al Jazeera.
France reopened its embassy in Libya, a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry said. France had closed the embassy six months ago.
Libyan rebels asked NATO to keep up pressure on the Gaddafi regime. The Associated Press reports NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil told a NATO delegation that former regime supporters who are now in hiding could still cause trouble.
"Gaddafi is still capable is doing something awful in the last moments," Abdul-Jalil said.
Tyler Hicks, photographer for the New York Times, found what seems to be a photo album from the Gaddafi family.
Watch the album on the NYTimes Lens Blog Website
Internet has returned in many areas in Tripoli.
|@ feb17voices : LPC #Tripoli: Internet has returned in many areas of the city. #Libya|
CNN correspondent in Libya Nic Robertson reports the Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset al Megrahi, is comatose and nearing death.
Read Robertson's full report on the CNN website.
The National Transitional Council announced earlier it will not extradite the Libyan.
CNN's report contradicts statements made earlier by a cancer specialist, who said Abdel Basset al Megrahi was in good health and could live for years.
Libya's National Transitional Council will not extradite the Lockerbie bomber
|@ Reuters : Minister in National Transitional Council says Libya will not extradite Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi|
An Iranian newspaper wrote on Sunday that foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi claimed Iran "discreetly" provided humanitarian aid to rebels in Libya.
According to AFP the minister told the newspaper that Iran was "in touch with many of the rebel groups in Libya before the fall of (Moamer) Gaddafi, and discreetly dispatched three or four food and medical consignments to Benghazi."
The minister also said the head of the NTC sent a letter to Teheran, thanking Iranian president Ahmedinejad for his help.
AFP reports Libyan rebels have freed more than 10,000 prisoners since they captured Tripoli. 50,000 prisoners would still be missing.
Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesperson for the rebels, told reporters during a press conference that between 57,000 and 60,000 people have been arrested over the past months.
Libyan rebels declined an offer by Muammar Gaddafi to negotiate, saying they do not recognize him and are looking for Gaddafi as a criminal.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Gaddafi had offered the rebels by phone to start talks lead by Gaddafi's son Saadi.
Mahmoud Shamman, the NTC's information minister said in a news conference:
"I would like to state very clearly, we don't recognize them. We are looking at them as criminals. We are going to arrest them very soon .. Talking about negotiations is a daydream for what remains of the dictatorship."
Al Jazeera English has more on the latest overtures from the Gaddafi camp:
Moussa Ibrahim, the spokesperson for Muammar Gaddafi, has reportedly told the Associated Press news agency that the Libyan leader is ready to negotiate with the rebels to form a transitional government.
Ibrahim called AP headquarters in New York late on Saturday, and told them he was calling from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and that Gaddafi was still in Libya.