Battle for Libya: Gadhafi Breaks Silence, Says Quitting Compound Was 'Tactical'

Libyan leader says fight for the country is far from over.

August 23, 2011, 2:44 AM

Aug. 23, 2011— -- Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi reportedly broke his silence tonight, saying it was a "tactical move" to abandon his compound to the rebels and vowing to crush an uprising that seems to be on the verge of victory.

Al-Rai TV, a Libyan television channel, promised to broadcast the full statement from Gadhafi, who had not been heard from since Sunday, when rebel forces swept into Tripoli.

In the excerpt it reported, Gadhafi said his forces will face "the aggression with all strength," and will not give up until they have either achieved victory or been killed.

The besieged leader's comments come after a day in which cheers and celebratory gunfire rang out after hundreds of rebel forces fought their way into Gadhafi's compound, and began to loot it of guns and other supplies.

Jubilation continued throughout most of the day until dusk began to fall and the party abruptly ended. At one point, pockets of Gadhafi loyalists began firing mortars and thousands of gleeful celebrants suddenly started to run for cover. Some buildings outside the compound were hit.

The U.S. embassy in Tripoli sustained damage, although it was unclear when it occured over the course of the rebels' storming into the city.

"Our understanding is that there is some damage to our building, but I can't speak to whether it's habitable until we are able to get an advance team in there," said U.S. State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Nuland added that for the time being, U.S. diplomats who have been based in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi will remain there.

Without any police or armed forces to establish order, which was made more difficult because most of Tripoli has no electricity, rampant vandalism continued in the streets.

Earlier today, large plumes of thick, black smoke could be seen rising from the compound. An Associated Press reporter at the scene said that hundreds of rebels poured into the complex after the compound's gates were blasted open. After entering the compound, the AP reporter said the body of a slain pro-Gadhafi fighter with a gaping head wound was sprawled on the floor of one of two tents that had been used for pro-regime protests. The other tent was partially on fire.

Opposition radio reported that an independence flag was raised over Gadhafi's compound, according to the BBC.

The whereabouts of Gadhafi and members of his immediate family remain unknown. A rebel spokesman told ABC News that they believe Gaddafi is still in or near Tripoli.

After the gates were opened, rebel soldiers drove pick-up trucks around the grounds inside the compound, while others walked away with AK-47s, pro-Gadhafi forces' uniforms and other supplies slung over their shoulders.

Al Jazeera captured video of rebel fighters kicking the bronze head of Gadhafi's statue, which was removed some time after the rebel forces stormed the compound. A few also climbed on top of the infamous statue of a golden hand crushing a jet fighter that stands in front of a building bombed by the United States in 1986.

NATO airstrikes had also heavily damaged the compound, Reuters reported.

President Obama and President Sarkozy of France discussed the developing situation in Libya on Tuesday, and reiterated that Gadhafi's regime needs to accept that it is time to relinquish its power.

Earlier today, a large numbers of rebel fighters retreated into Libya's western towns and cities to regroup with weapons looted from Gadhafi's armory, while others clashed with the Libyan leader's regime as the battle for Tripoli enters its third day.

Rebel soldiers told ABC News that they had planned to return to their bases then go back to Tripoli to attack Gadhafi's loyalists one more time in an attempt to seal victory.

The retreat was a shift in the situation on Monday when reports indicated that two of Gadhafi's three sons were captured by rebels and the Libyan leader's 42-year-long regime was crumbling.

Gadhafi's forces have been pushed into a corner since rebel fighters entered Tripoli on Sunday, with State Department officials estimating that the rebels are in control of 90 percent of Tripoli.

The conflict entered an extremely bloody phase on Tuesday with violent street fights erupting across Tripoli, while hospitals in all the cities and towns around the capital overflowed with casualties, and reports of extensive deaths flooded in.

Late Monday night an emboldened Seif al Islam Gadhafi -- the son and heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi whom Libyan rebels claimed to have captured -- re-appeared to a cheering crowd at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, where he claimed the Libyan regime will be victorious.

"We are going to win because the people are with us. That's why we're going to win," Seif al Islam Gadhafi said after turning up early Tuesday morning amongst regime forces at the hotel where dozens of foreign journalists are staying.

"Look at them, look at them," he said referring to Libyans who have flooded the capital. "In the streets, everywhere.

"We have broken the backbone of the rebels. It was a trap," he told the BBC. "We gave them a hard time, so we are winning."

When asked if his father is safe, Seif al Islam laughed and said, "Of course."

His appearance in a white limousine amid a convoy of armored SUVs on the streets of Tripoli conflicts with the rebels' National Transitional Council claims Sunday that three of Gadhafi's sons had either been captured or surrendered.

The leadership's spokesman Sadeq al-Kabir had no explanation for his sudden re-appearance and could only say, "This could be all lies."

U.S. State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told ABC News on Tuesday that confusion over reports that the rebels had captured Gadhafi's sons happened because there was a "fog of war" situation.

"It's not a surprise," she said. "[TNC has] locations elsewhere in Libya, but until the full leadership of the TNC is able to take root in Tripoli and is able to get its feet under it, I wouldn't pay too much attention to these fog-of-war things."

The NTC's ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, told ABC News on Monday that Moammar Gadhafi's other son Muhammad Gadhafi had escaped after surrendering to opposition forces.

Muhammad had publicly announced that he was surrendering during a weepy phone call to Al Jazeera in which he said his house was surrounded by gunfire.

Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, another rebel fighter spokesman who was in Tripoli, said that the "danger is still there" as long as Moammar Gadhafi remains at large.

Speaking while on vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Monday, President Obama said that the situation in Tripoli is "very fluid," while calling on Gadhafi to resign. He also praised the rebels fighting to oust the strongman and gain control of Tripoli.

"Although it's clear that Gadhafi's rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms for the sake of Libya," Obama said.

"I want to emphasize that this is not over yet. As the regime collapses, there is still fierce fighting in some areas. We have reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting," Obama said.

Pentagon officials believe Gadhafi is still in Libya.

"I think that's probably fair to say that we believe he's still in the country," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said. "On what basis can we say that? Just again, it's a belief. We do not have any information that he has left the country."

Lapan said there's been no indication that there's been any outreach to the United States from the Ghadafi government.

ABC News' Kirit Radia contributed to this report

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