TRIPOLI, Libya — Hundreds of Libyan rebels blasted through the green gates of Moammar Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli Tuesday after five hours of intense fighting around it. They beat and killed some of those who defended it, fired celebratory shots in the air and hauled off crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back.
The storming of the sprawling compound in the capital, long the nexus of Gadhafi's power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime, even though pockets of resistance are likely to persist around the country for some time. It was only Sunday night that the rebels surprised everyone with their lightning fast advance into Tripoli, quickly capturing large parts of the city of 2 million.
"We're looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a 29-year-old rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle. Gadhafi's whereabouts were still unknown.
One fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi's home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many a fiery speech from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television at the beginning of the 6-month-old uprising, mocking his opponents.
Bab al-Aziziya has since been pummeled many times over by NATO bombings in the air campaign against the regime that began in March.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with an RPG slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is hiding underground inside the complex.
"Wasn't he the one who called us rats. Now he is the rat underground," he said. Asked how it felt to be standing inside Gadhafi's compound, the fighter who came from to Tripoli two days ago from rebel-held western city of Misrata replied:
"It's an explosion of joy inside. I lost friends and relatives and now I can walk into Gadhafi's house. Many of my friends have died and now all of that meant something."
Associated Press reporters inside the compound said parts of it appeared to still be under control of government forces who were firing toward the rebels, making for an atmosphere of joyful celebration mixed with tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles and the sound of crackling gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" and on loudspeakers they cried: "Hamdullah, hamdullah" or "Thank God."