The euphoria that followed the rebels’ triumphant march in Tripoli gave way to confusion and wariness as Col.
Muammar el-Qaddafi remained at large, his son Seif al-Islam made a surprise appearance at a hotel with foreign journalists early Tuesday, and loyalist units stubbornly resisted rebel efforts to take control of the capital.
“There are still some pockets of resistance,” the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said in a radio interview in Paris on Tuesday as reporters in Tripoli said an uneasy calm after fighting on Monday gave way to the crackle of gunfire and the rumble of explosions on Tuesday.
In Paris, Mr. Juppé added that he believed “the fall of Qaddafi is close.” Along with the United States and Britain, France has played a central role in the diplomatic and military campaigns to oust Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Juppé said those efforts still need time “to get to the end of this operation.”
His comments coincided with news reports that rebels who had taken control of the port of Tripoli from government forces felt their situation was too precarious to guarantee operations there.
Such was the uncertainty that the International Organization for Migration in Geneva said it had delayed a seaborne mission to rescue hundreds of foreigners from Tripoli because “security guarantees and assurances are no longer in place,” said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization. A ship that left the eastern port of Benghazi on Monday would remain at sea until some level of safety for the mission could be assured but would not dock in Tripoli as planned on Tuesday, she said in a telephone interview.
Additionally, Al Arabiya satellite television reported, rebels killed dozens of pro-Qaddafi troops on Tuesday in a convoy from his home town of Surt. There was no independent corroboration of the report. The Pentagon in Washington reported late Monday that its warplanes had shot down a Scud missile fired from Surt.
The BBC reported meanwhile that the Qaddafi-controlled Rixos luxury hotel in central Tripoli where most foreign reporters are based had also come under attack on Tuesday, sending some reporters to take cover in a basement.
While rebel leaders professed to be making progress in securing Tripoli and planning for a post-Qaddafi government, and international leaders hailed the beginnings of a new era in Libya on Monday, the immediate aftermath of the lightning invasion was a vacuum of power, with no cohesive rebel government in place and remnants of the Qaddafi government still in evidence.
Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, whose capture the rebels had trumpeted since Sunday, walked as a free man to the Rixos Hotel early Tuesday, boasting to foreign journalists there that his father’s government was still “in control” and had lured the rebels into a trap, the BBC and news services reported. His appearance raised significant questions about the credibility of rebel leaders.
It was not clear whether he had been in rebel custody and escaped, or was never held at all. Another Qaddafi son, Muhammed, escaped from house arrest on Monday.
Fighters hostile to the rebels still battled on the streets and rooftops of Tripoli, wounding or killing at least a dozen people. And Colonel Qaddafi’s green flag still flew in parts of Tripoli and over at least two major cities considered strongholds of his tribe, Sabha to the south and Surt on the coast roughly midway between Tripoli and Benghazi. In a brief address while on vacation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., President Obama recognized both the historic nature of the rebels’ accomplishment and the troubles they face. Saying that the future of Libya “is in the hands of its people,” he cautioned that “there will be huge challenges ahead.” He pledged that the United States would seek to help Libya in its attempt to establish democracy.
There was speculation that Colonel Qaddafi may have retreated to his fortified compound, Bab al-Aziziya, in Tripoli, which rebels said was heavily defended by snipers and tanks.
Mahmud Nacua, a Libyan rebel representative in London, told reporters that the insurgents would “look under every stone” for Colonel Qaddafi so that he could be brought to trial. This was presumably a reference to charges by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which in June issued arrest warrants for Colonel Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi and Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, accusing them of crimes against humanity.
The struggle to a impose a new order on the capital presents a crucial test of the rebel leadership’s many pledges to replace Colonel Qaddafi’s bizarre autocracy with the democratic rule of law, and it could have consequences across the country and throughout the Arab world.
Unlike the swift and largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan insurrection was the first revolt of the Arab Spring to devolve into a protracted armed struggle, and at times threatened to descend into a civil war of factions and tribes.
A rebel failure to deliver on their promises of justice and reconciliation here in the capital could spur Qaddafi loyalists around Libya to fight on. And an ugly outcome here might discourage strong foreign support for democracy movements elsewhere.
For now, governments throughout the West and the Middle East welcomed the rebels’ victory and pledged to assist them in the transition. The European Union said Monday that it had begun planning for a post-Qaddafi era, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said he would fly to Benghazi on Tuesday to meet with the rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the semiofficial Anatolian Agency reported.
Egypt formally recognized the rebel Libyan government on Monday, calling the Transitional National Council the “new regime.” Mohammed Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, said that the council would take over the Libyan Embassy in Cairo, and would assume Libya’s seat on the Arab League, which is based in Cairo.
France said Monday that it wanted to call a top-level meeting in Paris next week of the so-called Contact Group of nations supporting the Libyan rebels: the United States, Britain, several Arab states, the United Nations and the Arab League.
At the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, said he was trying to organize a meeting by Thursday or Friday with regional actors, including the African Union and the Arab League, to help smooth the transition to a new government. He said the United Nations was prepared to help with any request from the Libyans, from writing a new constitution to coordinating humanitarian assistance, he said.
Some rebels speculated that certain tribes who had benefited from Qaddafi patronage, like the Warfalla and the Warshafana, remained hostile to the rebels.
The tenuous nature of the rebels’ grip on the capital was clear at the makeshift headquarters of the “Tripoli Brigade,” described as a hand-picked team assigned to secure the city.
Emhemmed Ghula, who identified himself as a deputy chief of the Tripoli underground, was telling journalists the city was “90 percent under control,” aside from some number of snipers. “They have some roofs, but they can’t move in the streets.”
Moments later, one such sniper atop a tall building nearby began firing down on the courtyard and windows of the headquarters, housed in a former women’s school. Then as the fighters huddled against the walls, two groups of armed men in trucks — one mounted with artillery — attacked the front gate. Artillery shells burst through the compound.
The attackers’ aim and organization suggested the gunmen were experienced Qaddafi militiamen. But the fighters inside showed little discipline. Instead of firing back at the start of the fight, a dozen armed men near the gate raced to the floor of a small anteroom. There was no one either giving or following orders.
“It is nothing, just a few guys,” one rebel officer said to a group of journalists, playing down the significance of what became a three-hour firefight. “But for you guys, it is safer inside.”
After a conference behind closed doors, the Tripoli Brigade assigned to police the city ultimately decided to relocate its headquarters to safer ground. “Call NATO, please! 911!” one rebel joked when he saw a visitor’s satellite phone.
At roughly the same time, as many as 10 injured people were brought to a makeshift rebel clinic in a house in the city, according to several foreign journalists visiting at the time. (Tripoli Central Hospital is in an area that remains controlled by Qaddafi loyalists.) It is unclear whether any of them were injured at the Tripoli Brigade headquarters or in other fighting in the city. But moments later, the journalists said, a gunfight broke out in front of the clinic as well.