Libyan rebels during training exercise 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bob Strong)
AL-MAYA/TRIPOLI - Rebel fighters streamed into the outskirts of Tripoli on Sunday with little sign of resistance, despite a call by Muammar Gaddafi for citizens to take up arms and save his 41-year-old regime from annihilation.
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A convoy of rebels entered a western neighborhood of the city firing their weapons into the air, a witness said. Sky television said some fighters were only 8 km from the center and were being welcomed by civilians pouring into the streets.
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Thousands of rebel fighters were seen earlier in the day 20 km (12 miles) west of the city center, aiming to join fighters inside who began an uprising late on Saturday, a Reuters correspondent said.
"I am afraid if we don't act, they will burn Tripoli," Gaddafi said in an audio address broadcast on state television. "There will be no more water, food, electricity or freedom."
Bursts of gunfire and blasts from rocket-propelled grenades rang out near a hotel in Tripoli where foreign media are staying, a Reuters correspondent in the hotel said.
In a coordinated revolt that rebels have been secretly planning for months to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule, shooting started on Saturday night across Tripoli moments after Muslim clerics, using the loudspeakers of mosque minarets, called people on to the streets.
The fighting inside Tripoli, combined with rebel advances into the outskirts of the city, appeared to signal the decisive phase in a six-month conflict that has become the bloodiest of the "Arab Spring" uprisings and embroiled NATO powers.
Gaddafi, in his second audio broadcast in 24 hours, dismissed the rebels as rats.
"I am giving the order to open the weapons stockpiles," Gaddafi said. "I call on all Libyans to join this fight. Those who are afraid, give your weapons to your mothers or sisters.
"Go out, I am with you until the end. I am in Tripoli. We will ... win."
A Libyan government official told Reuters that 376 people on both sides of the conflict were killed in fighting overnight on Saturday in Tripoli, with about 1,000 others wounded.
"Gaddafi's chances for a safe exit are diminishing by the hour," said Ashour Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist and editor based in Britain.
But Gaddafi's fall, after four decades in power, is far from certain. His security forces did not buckle, and the city is much bigger than anything the mostly amateur anti-Gaddafi fighters, with their scavenged weapons and mismatched uniforms, have ever tackled.
If the Libyan leader is forced from power, there are question marks over
whether the opposition can restore stability in this oil exporting
country. The rebels' own ranks have been racked by disputes and rivalry.
said after a night of heavy fighting they controlled a handful of city
neighborhoods. Whether they hold on could depend on the speed with which
the other rebels reach Tripoli.
"The rebels may have risen too
early in Tripoli and the result could be a lot of messy fighting," said
Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya. "The regime may not
have collapsed in the city to quite the extent they think it has."
the rebel advance towards the city has been rapid. In the past 48
hours, the rebels west of Tripoli have advanced about 30 km, halving the
distance between them and the capital.