Tripoli's Abu Salim District Faces Heavy Fighting

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In Tripoli, Libyan rebels are continuing to battle Gadhafi loyalists in parts of the city. The Abu Salim district just south of Gadhafi's former compound has been the focus of the heaviest fighting, and there is speculation that Gadhafi — or one or more of his sons — may be holding out in the district.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. In Tripoli today, rebels pushed into a neighborhood still controlled by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. While rumors swirled that the Libyan leader was surrounded there, his spokesman told The Associated Press that he was fine and still leading the battle against the opposition. Gadhafi himself released another audio message today, calling on his supporters to liberate Tripoli.

As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, Gadhafi's fighters even control parts of the command center that rebels overran earlier this week.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a courtyard in front of Gadhafi's residence, a dozen bodies lay in the sun. Some are wearing fatigues and had their hands tied. It wasn't clear who they were or why they were killed, but it was impossible to get a closer look.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here in Bab al-Aziziya, which is Gadhafi's compound and it's still clearly not secure, we're just taking sniper fire from buildings inside the compound. Rebel fighters, who in recent days have come in from the once besieged city of Misrata, charged into the area on pickup trucks. The Misrata rebels know urban fighting and have come in with big guns.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Their commander who declined to give his name estimates there are hundreds of loyalists still inside Bab al-Aziziya hiding in the parklands where a vast underground network of tunnels that is only just beginning to be explored.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken) The rebels are leaving, so we are going, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We couldn't finish our interview because suddenly the rebels came under intense fire and hastily retreated. There was also an attack on the Corinthia Hotel where journalists are staying. And in another battle in the south of the city, rebels moved to take over Abu Salim, a large neighborhood that was home to Gadhafi loyalists.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Large explosions echoed over the city from the battle.

MAHMOUD DURHAT: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fighter Mahmoud Durhat(ph) says the rebels are pushing into the last real loyalist readout in Tripoli. He says he believes Gadhafi is hiding in the city. We've cut off all the exits, he says, so he can't get out. But the whereabouts of the Libyan leader are unknown, and a manhunt is on. Despite that, Gadhafi managed to broadcast another audio message today, still defiant even though he's being chased. And we are now getting glimpses into the Gadhafi family's secret lives, and it seems the whole family had an obsession with being underground.

Moatessem Gadhafi lived in a huge compound that NPR was granted access to today. He was one of his father's top military commanders, and he was known for his flashy taste in suits. His house is encircled with 30-foot metal walls and encloses a paradise-like garden with two homes, one only half completed.

This is so bizarre. One of the strangest features of Moatessem Gadhafi's house, I'm walking through it right now, is a fully-equipped hospital buried underneath the garden. The entrance is hidden by bushes, and the doors are all thick steel plates that can withstand attacks.

All the hospital equipment was taken to medical facilities that are in dire need in the capital. The house was looted. All that's left is the modern glass and concrete structure and a few odds and ends - an empty Corona beer box, a few magazines, including a Playboy, scattered cushions and his king-sized bed. Asraf al-Jaderi(ph) is a doctor who lives in the neighborhood. He was never allowed into the house. He says they used to see soil being removed in massive dump trucks but never knew why.

Why do you think they had this fixation with burying things underneath the ground?

ASRAF AL-JADERI: I'm going to tell you it's so easy to know that. He is mind freak. He is a dictator. You can't imagine. He is always living in his fear. He's abnormal. He know that he's a dictator, and he has prepared himself for this moment. He's preparing himself for this moment. Always, his fear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it didn't save him.

AL-JADERI: (Speaking foreign language). In Ramadan, we finish him and we will kick him out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the Gadhafis were always looking over their shoulder, wondering where the next threat would come from, but there was no way they could have imagined this. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tripoli.

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