TRIPOLI - A beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi vowed on Wednesday to fight on to death or victory after rebels forced him to abandon his Tripoli stronghold in what appeared to be a decisive blow against the Libyan leader's 42-year rule.

Gleeful rebels ransacked Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya bastion, seizing weapons and smashing symbols of a government whose demise will transform Libya and send a warning to other Arab autocrats facing popular uprisings.

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Gaddafi said his withdrawal from his headquarters in the heart of the capital was a tactical move after it had been hit by 64 NATO air strikes and he vowed "martyrdom" or victory in his fight against the alliance.

Urging Libyans to cleanse the streets of traitors, he said he had secretly toured Tripoli.

"I have been out a bit in Tripoli discreetly, without being seen by people, and ... I did not feel that Tripoli was in danger," Gaddafi said.


He was speaking to pro-Gaddafi media outlets and his whereabouts after leaving the compound remain a mystery, although he appeared to have been in Tripoli, at least until recently.

As night fell on Tuesday after a day in which rebels overran Tripoli, meeting little resistance with few casualties, heavy fighting was reported in a southern desert city, Sabha, that rebels forecast would be Gaddafi loyalists' last redoubt.

Forces loyal to Gaddafi were shelling the towns of Zuara and Ajelat, west of Tripoli, Al-Arabiya television reported.

Some hostile fire around Tripoli

In Tripoli itself, Reuters correspondents said there still appeared to be some hostile fire around the city centre as darkness descended and looting broke out.

Omar al-Ghirani, a spokesman for the rebels, said loyalist forces had fired seven Grad missiles at residential areas of the capital, causing people to flee their homes in panic.

He told Reuters Gaddafi forces had also fired mortar rounds in the area of the Tripoli airport.

The continued shooting suggested the six-month popular insurgency against Gaddafi, a maverick Arab nationalist who defied the West and kept an iron hand on his oil-exporting, country for four decades, had not completely triumphed yet.

A spokesman for Gaddafi said the Libyan leader was ready to resist the rebels for months, or even years.

"We will turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents," Moussa Ibrahim said, speaking by telephone to the pro-Gaddafi channels.

Rebel leaders would not enjoy peace if they carried out plans to move to Tripoli from their headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, he said.

But Gaddafi was already history in the eyes of the rebels and their political leaders planned high-level talks in Qatar on Wednesday with envoys of the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates on the way ahead.

Another meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Istanbul.

"It's over! Gaddafi is finished!" yelled a fighter over a din of celebratory gunfire across the Bab al-Aziziya compound, Gaddafi's sprawling citadel of power in the Libyan capital.

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