Libyan rebels tightened their grip Monday night on the capital Tripoli, hunting down besieged strongman Muammar Gaddafi and prompting cautious support from world leaders including US President Barack Obama.

“The Gaddafi regime is coming to an end and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people,” Obama told reporters Monday while on vacation in Massachusetts. He said the US would be a friend to post-Gaddafi Libya, while urging rebels not to wage acts of vengeance.

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Earlier, a White House aide said Washington had not changed its opposition to putting US “boots on the ground” in Libya.

Gaddafi’s whereabouts remained unknown Monday night, but three of the 69-year-old’s sons were reported captured: Mohammed, Saadi and Seif Islam, the latter once touted in the West as a reformer and widely viewed as heir apparent. The International Criminal Court said it hoped to question Seif at The Hague, though a rebel official said Libya might try him instead.

Citing unnamed sources, Al Jazeera reported that the body of another son, Khamis, commander of a feared elite military unit, may have been found along with that of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi.

Suliman Dregia, an Ohio State University engineering professor raised in Misrata and Tripoli, said his joy at watching the rebel advance has been tempered with concern for Libya’s future.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, because there isn’t a strong tradition [of democracy], but I’m optimistic,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Libyans see this as a sort of second independence, and I hope the international community will play a positive role in capacity building and helping the creation of democracy there.”

Maurice Roumani, a Benghazi- born professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said he is exuberant over the news.

“These are exciting times, seeing Gaddafi on his way out after 42 years,” he said. “This man trampled the rights of many people – Libyans, Italians and Jews.

“The cemetery where my grandfather is buried in Benghazi is no longer there. Gaddafi built a highway there, and we have no idea where my grandfather is interred,” Roumani said.

Most Jews had been forced out of Libya before Gaddafi’s 1969 military coup, but under his rule all Jewish property was confiscated and debts to Jews annulled. Four decades on, Roumani said, Libyan Jews still have an “open account” with the autocrat.

In a last, defiant audio broadcast Sunday before state television went off the air, Gaddafi said he was still in Tripoli, and would stay “until the end.”

There had been speculation he might be hiding in his home region around the central coastal city of Sirte.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, said he had no idea of Gaddafi’s whereabouts, but a US official said there was no evidence the eccentric “Brother Leader” had fled the country.

The advance on Tripoli came two days after rebel fighters launched a daring pincer maneuver on the capital, coupled with a call to residents of the city to rise up. By Monday night insurgents were said to hold around 95 percent of Tripoli, a Gaddafi stronghold throughout the six-month uprising against his rule.

Firefights continued in Tripoli and elsewhere Monday as government forces made a last-ditch effort to forestall a rebel victory that had come to appear all but inevitable.

Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli appeared to be one of the last bastions of government-held territory in the capital.

The night before, civilians had flocked to Tripoli’s Green Square, long the showpiece of Gaddafi’s personality cult, waving rebel flags.

Some said they renamed it Martyrs’ Square. Young men burned the green flags of the government and raised the rebel tricolor used by the post-colonial monarchy overthrown by Gaddafi.

Diplomatic pressure seemed to mount by the hour. Gaddafi’s prime minister had turned up in Tunisia, and more and more Libyan embassies have hoisted the rebel flag.

Foreign governments that had hesitated to take sides, among them Gaddafi’s Arab neighbors as well as economic partners Russia and China, have made clear they now feel his four decades of absolute power must end. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Gaddafi’s troops to stop fighting and allow a peaceful transition of power.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who took an early gamble on the Libyan rebels, called on loyalists “to turn their back on the criminal and cynical blindness of their leader by immediately ceasing fire, giving up their arms and turning themselves in to the legitimate Libyan authorities.”

The French foreign minister said Sarkozy’s government aims to host a meeting of international partners in Paris next week to lay out a roadmap for Libya’s future.

Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s justice minister until defecting in February, told a news conference in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi: “I call on all Libyans to exercise self restraint and to respect the property and lives of others and not to resort to taking the law into their own hands.”

Speaking of Libya’s oil reserves, he said the council would favor foreign countries that had supported the rebellion – a potential blow to the likes of Chinese and Russian oil companies, though they are not the only ones to have cut deals with Gaddafi.

There have been concerns that tribal, ethnic and other divisions among the diverse armed groups opposed to Gaddafi could lead to the kind of blood-letting seen in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the presence of former Gaddafi aides in the rebel camp is cited by some as cause to hope the opposition can prove more inclusive than that in Iraq.

Other concerns center around the presence of Islamist groups among the country’s opposition. Roumani said that though such groups do have considerable support – particularly among rural Libyans and the poor – he does not expect them to play a lead role in the country’s future.

“I saw many young people with beards, but I saw many others without,” he said of televised anti-government protests. “But I believe Islam in Libya, and in northern Africa generally, is different from Islam in the Middle East. I would say it’s more moderate.”

Roumani said even in a post-Gaddafi era, Libya cannot be expected to forge ties with Israel anytime soon.

“Libya is a member of the Arab League, and it will have to toe the Arab line. To what extent that will be anti-Israel, that remains to be seen.”

The Arab League threw its weight behind Libya’s rebels on Monday.

“Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby offers his full solidarity with the ongoing efforts under the leadership of the National Transitional Council,” the Cairo-based League said a statement that was its first formal acknowledgement of the council.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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