Gaddafi loyalists face last stand in Tripoli

Rebel fighter near Bab al-Aziziya compound, Tripoli - 24 August 201
Image caption Rebels have captured stocks of weapons from Col Gaddafi's forces

The lightning advance of rebel forces into the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on Sunday took everyone by surprise, not least the rebels themselves.

It has led some to think that it was all too easy, and despite the storming of the Bab al-Aziziya compound on Tuesday, it is clear that the battle for the city is still not over.

The groundwork for the advance into Tripoli was laid the night before the attack, as residents across the capital came out under cover of darkness in response to calls issued over mosque loudspeakers.

At this stage, the so-called "Operation Mermaid Dawn" was largely unarmed, yet residents managed to seal off entire districts.

They captured some of Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces and occupied the rest, leaving the door open for the better-armed opposition fighters from nearby Zawiya to stream in.

Snipers and booby-traps

The task now for the rebel forces is to enter and stabilise those districts of Tripoli still under the control of Gaddafi loyalists.

Currently, they control the working class districts of al-Hadhba and Abu Salim to the south of the city, and parts of the airport road.

In Abu Salim, snipers have taken up positions in high buildings. It seems as though the loyalists still have access to heavy weaponry, such as Grad missiles and anti-aircraft guns.

There were reports of mortars being fired at Bab al-Aziziya, after it fell into opposition hands, from the Nasser Forest behind the Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists were held for several days.

Rebel sources say that buildings have been booby-trapped and that drinking water may have been poisoned. However, the loyalists face opposition in Tripoli which is getting stronger by the day.

Battle-hardened fighters from the Western Mountains are better equipped than they have ever been thanks to the Khamis Brigade's huge arsenal, which is now in their hands.

Just as significant is the arrival of hundreds of fighters by land and sea from the city of Misrata.

They successfully withstood a siege of their city by two of Col Gaddafi's best battalions for four months, and have become experts in street-by-street urban warfare and counter-sniper operations.

It is likely that they will be doing most of the urban fighting in the densely populated Abu Salim area.

Pockets of resistance

The rebel fighters are equipped with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, missile launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and, most importantly, sky-high morale after the fall of Bab al-Aziziya.

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Media captionThe BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes came under fire as fighting continued in Gaddafi's compound

They are superior to the loyalists in both numbers and weaponry. And of course, Nato warplanes continue to fly sorties over the capital, providing reconnaissance and air support against Col Gaddafi's remaining troops.

The outcome of this battle is likely to be the defeat of the loyalist forces within days. However, the nature of the defeat may still change.

The rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) and the rebel forces seem keen to avoid a bloodbath.

Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the NTC's cabinet, announced on Tuesday that any loyalists who laid down their arms and surrendered would not be harmed.

The NTC, which includes many members with past links to the regime, has proved itself adept at negotiating the surrender of entire military units, including the Khamis Brigade, whose capitulation allowed opposition forces entry into Tripoli.

But surrender may no longer be as easy an option in the capital.

The remaining pockets of loyalist resistance are likely to be cut off from any command structure. The troops may feel they are part of a desperate last stand, and establishing negotiating channels with them will prove difficult.

If they continue to hold out, parts of Tripoli will be in for a tense and uncomfortable few days, and the death toll on both sides will be sure to increase.

Even if this is the outcome, however, the scale of human and material losses will still be low compared to the bloody, protracted war of attrition which just last week was expected to take place in the capital.