By Elizabeth Arrott
Libyan rebels have captured a military base defending Tripoli, the stronghold of long-time leader Moammar Gadhafi, while fighting is reported inside the city. News agency reporters say rebel fighters are taking weapons and ammunition from the base, 27 kilometers west of the capital.
Libya’s government concedes that the battle for Tripoli is under way. Witnesses say there is fighting in several places inside the capital, as rebels claim they control three districts and other forces advance from the west and east.
Residents of Tripoli say gunbattles continued during the day Sunday, and explosions could be heard across the city. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim says the government is prepared.
“Tripoli is well protected and we have thousands upon thousands of professional soldiers who are ready to defend this city,” said Ibrahim.
The spokesman called the rebels “armed gangs” whose success can only be attributed to NATO.
“NATO has provided these rebels with weapons,” said Ibrahim. “This is not a secret. It is the weapons with which they are killing the Libyan people.”
NATO, working under a United Nations mandate, has waged a five-month air campaign against Libyan government forces, after long-time leader Gadhafi tried to put down a widespread uprising.
Despite the defiance of the speech, Mr. Ibrahim’s address to reporters in Tripoli was a rare admission of advances the rebels have made.
An official with the opposition Transitional National Council in Benghazi says it has information that troops loyal to Mr. Gadhafi have abandoned their weapons and positions outside the capital and rebel forces are in.
Fathi Baji says rebels are approaching the Bab al-Aziza compound, Mr. Gadhafi’s headquarters in Tripoli. That report could not be independently confirmed.
West of the capital, other rebel fighters say they are advancing past Zawiya, 50 kilometers from Tripoli. But foreign reporters in the area say government forces are putting up resistance outside the town.
Rebels to the east and south of Tripoli have consolidated recent gains and are also trying to push toward the capital. Six months after the unrest began and following numerous set-backs, anti-government forces appear to be executing a coordinated effort to ring the capital. They have cut major supply routes, although government forces still hold several regions farther east and to the south.
Mr. Gadhafi made his first address in several weeks late Saturday. In audio relayed by state television, he said NATO supporters would go “to hellfire.”
The Libyan leader also faced further defections from his cause, with a former deputy appearing on the al-Jazeera network calling for the people of Tripoli to rise up. Speaking from an undisclosed location Saturday, Abdel Salam Jalloud said “zero hour is here.” His is the third top defection reported in a week.