TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi's compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbing regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besieged dictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi's power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for - and gunbattles flaring across the nervous city - the fighters cannot declare victory.
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for five hours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They beat and killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled away crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
"We're looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with an rocket-propelled grenade slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is inside the compound but hiding underground.
"Wasn't he the one who called us rats? Now he is the rat underground," he said.
Shafiya said he felt "an explosion of joy" to be standing inside Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital after a lightning-quick rebel advance. He had left the rebel-held western city of Misrata just two days earlier.
"I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi's house," Shafiya said. "Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
Associated Press reporters inside the compound said parts of it appeared to still be under control of government forces who were firing toward the rebels, making for an atmosphere of joyful celebration mixed with tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles and the sound of crackling gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" and on loudspeakers they cried: "Hamdullah, hamdullah" or "Thank God."
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters - one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot - were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi and kicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilant comrades danced and yelled around him. Fighters with long beards hugged each other and flashed the "V" for victory sign. Others carried injured rebels to ambulances.
A fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi's home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many a fiery speech from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television six months ago, at the beginning of the uprising, and mocked his opponents.
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand-new rifles still in their paper wrappings.
Scuffles broke out among rebels pushing and shoving to get inside two white buildings where the rifles, machine guns and handguns are stored. They came out drenched in sweat from the struggles.
Ali Sameer, a Tripoli resident, stood with three brand new rifles resting on his legs.
"They are for my friends. I don't even know how to fight," he said.
The rebels carted out boxes of the weapons and ammunition, and some drove off with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on the back.
One drove out with a golf cart. Another walked out with a fan. Others were busy ripping down posters of Gadhafi.
Near Gadhafi's old home with the statue outside, the body of a dead regime loyalist lay inside a large tent with glass windows shot out. The body was partly covered by a blanket, the head sticking out with a gaping gunshot wound.
A second, much larger tent was on fire.
Gadhafi has a famous penchant for Bedouin-style tents, meant to symbolize his roots as a simple desert dweller. He received guests in the tents inside Bab al-Aziziya.
A shrine to Gadhafi's Green Book, a rambling treatise outlining his ruling philosophy, was torched, sending columns of black smoke over the compound.
The storming of the compound was a new high for the rebels in what has been an emotional roller coaster since they moved into Tripoli on Sunday night. It began with euphoria and claims that they had taken over most of the city with little resistance. The first night they partied in Green Square, a major symbol of the regime where Gadhafi supporters had held almost nightly rallies throughout the uprising. And it seemed Gadhafi rule was teetering on the brink of collapse.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, there was a shocking setback. The rebels had claimed that they arrested Gadhafi's son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam. It was confirmed by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which has charged him and his father with crimes against humanity.
But inexplicably, Seif al-Islam showed up at the hotel where foreign journalists are staying under the close watch of regime minders in early morning hours of Tuesday. He giddily took reporters on eerie drive in the middle of the night to see hundreds of pro-regime gunmen around Bab al-Aziziya and at least a hundred more lined up outside, where guns were being handed out to volunteers.
By Tuesday morning, it looked like the capital might descend into bloody urban warfare. There was sporadic gunfire in many parts. The rebels were in control of parts of the city, though it was not clear how extensive their control really was. Then the fighting took focus around Gadhafi's compound.
The Libyan leader has not been heard from since Sunday, when rebels entered Tripoli and he delivered a series of angry and defiant audio messages that were apparently phoned in to state television.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation who has known Gadhafi for year, said he spoke Tuesday by telephone with Gadhafi, who told him he was "alive and well and still in Tripoli." The report couldn't be independently confirmed.
In other parts of the capital, the rebels said they were also in control of state television. They raised their tricolor flag on the top of the building. Rebels claimed they also control the airport.
Libya's former deputy ambassador to the U.N. said he expected the entire country would be in rebel hands within 72 hours. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who with other diplomats has continued to work at the Libyan mission since disavowing Gadhafi in February, said Tuesday he expects Libya will be "totally liberated."
Outside of Tripoli, the rebels have claimed control of much of the rest of the country. Gadhafi's hometown city of Sirte, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of the capital, was the most important bastion still fully under his control.
The rebels said heavily armed forces from the eastern front had advanced late Tuesday night to within a few miles of Sirte, halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli, and there was no sign of resistance. Col. Ahmed Bani, the rebel military spokesman, said they will try to avoid bloodshed by negotiating with tribal leaders of Sirte.
He also said that rebels have taken over the eastern oil port of city of Ras Lanouf. The coastal city is 380 miles (615 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The rebels said there is still fierce fighting in the midland desert city of Sebha, 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli.
In the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, the news of the Bab al-Aziziya storming was greeted with celebratory gunfire and firecrackers. Men drove around waving rebel flags.
Wael Abu Khris, a shipping agent turned rebel fighter from Tripoli, was walking around Gadhafi's compound after the battle, carrying his Kalashnikov.
"I feel great satisfaction. We are at last free of this dictator," he said. "Libya is free at last. No more Gadhafi!"
Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.