Video: Rebels begin fighting in Tripoli

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    >>> good evening. as we come on the air tonight, there are some fast-moving developments in libya where it appears rebel fighters have begun the battle for tripoli , what may be their final push to topple the government of moammar gadhafi . there had been reports of gunfire and explosions in the capital this evening. but there's also confusion over the whereabouts of gadhafi himself amid persistent rumors he may have fled the country. american officials say they are hearing the exact same rumors but cannot confirm them. let's get right to our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel is in thanh, libya.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. rebels started firing wildly in the air when they heard the reports that gadhafi had left the country. but even the rebels here do not know if those reports are true. we can confirm that fighting has begun inside tripoli itself in at least three neighborhoods after the rebels made major advances earlier today. after a week of some of the most intense battles of the six-month revolution against moammar gadhafi , today, a key victory. the u.s. and nato-backed rebels took control of all of the city of zawia. when we arrived there today, the scars of the fighting were still fresh, buildings popped by bullets and partially collapsed, spent ammunition everywhere. and by our account, the bodies of at least five of gadhafi 's sub-saharan mercenaries -- the most intense fighting appears to have been at the only hotel, the jewel. this hotel is one of the tallest buildings here. gadhafi was using it as a base. the rebels have a renewed optimism. as we surveyed the damage, we saw a group of rebels, the same unit we followed on friday as they fought for this city. today they came to celebrate, libyan rebel style. a chaotic and somewhat dangerous barrage of anti-aircraft and weapons fire. these fighters are convinced this war is nearing an end. the top rebel commander in this area has told us that the zero hour, the final battle for tripoli , has now begun. lester?

Image: Libyan rebel fighters burn a Gadhafi government flag
Bob Strong  /  Reuters
Libyan rebel fighters burn a Gadhafi government flag in the main square Saturday after seizing control of the center of the strategic coastal city of Zawiyah.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 8/21/2011 12:23:07 AM ET 2011-08-21T04:23:07

Libyan rebels launched an assault early Sunday on the capital of Tripoli amid unconfirmed reports that leader Moammar Gadhafi had fled, NBC News reported.

"Zero hour has begun," a rebel commander told NBC News.

However, a government spokesman said Gadhafi remained in control and the leader in a live interview on state television called the rebels "rats" who need to be destroyed.

Rebels were fighting in at least four areas of Tripoli, NBC News said.

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Four loud explosions were heard at around 4 a.m. Sunday local time in the heart of the city as NATO warplanes flew overhead, Sky News reported. The targets have not yet been identified.

Earlier Sunday protesters demanding the departure of Gadhafi took to the capital streets, Reuters said. Heavy mortar fire and sustained gunfire grew intense, witnesses said.

White House and U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring rumors that Gadhafi had left with his two sons, Hannibal and Mutassim, ending his 41-year rule, NBC News reported.

Late last week, intelligence officials told NBC News that Gadhafi might seek exile in Tunisia.

White House officials said President Barack Obama, vacationing at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., "had been briefed on Libya and is getting regular updates as needed."

A second senior official said the administration was in close contact with the Libyan opposition and U.S. allies and partners, and believes that Gadhafi's days in power are numbered. Both aides spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gadhafi rumors add to uncertainty for US on Libya

In Libya, rebels said they launched the Tripoli assault in coordination with NATO and with the uprising of rebels inside the capital.

"This was a pre-set plan," said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the National Transition Council, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. "They've been preparing for a while. There's coordination with the rebels approaching from the east, west and south.''

Ghoga said NATO warplanes were launching raids to distract Gadhafi's forces.

"The next hours are crucial. Many of their (pro-Gadhafi) brigades and their commanders have fled.''

His claims could not be independently confirmed immediately.

Sustained gunfire and thuds were heard in the distance and residents of Tajoura, on Tripoli's eastern outskirts, where reported clashes were under way.

An eyewitness told Al Arabiya news agency that the suburb was in rebel hands and people were out dancing in the streets.

Free Libya Now television reported that rebel forces set up command and control and civil control structures.

It also claimed rebels were in control of the airport, but the government denied the report.

An unknown number of rebels were killed in clashes in the Tripoli suburb of Qadah and fighting was ongoing at Mitiga airbase, a rebel activist told Reuters.

In the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, residents took to the streets to celebrate the advance on Tripoli, Al Jazeera news agency reported.

However, Gadhafi on a state television audio broadcast, congratulated Libyans on the elimination of "the rats."

He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy "wants the Libyan oil." Rebels don't represent Libya and are bent on "the destruction of the Libyan people," he said, also mentioning the time so he could prove his statements were not pre-recorded.

He signed off saying, "Long live. Go forward, go forward, go forward, go forward."

Gunfire was heard in Tripoli after Gadhafi finished his talk, witnesses said.

Earlier, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told state television: "All of Tripoli is safe and stable."

"I ensure Libyans that Gadhafi is your leader ... Tripoli is surrounded by thousands to defend it,'' he said. "Armed people sneaked into Tripoli but have been dealt with."

A dictator's guide to exile

"We have arrested Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians in Tripoli," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim renewed a call to rebels to surrender, saying they would be forgiven even if "they have killed our relatives.''

Mobile telephone subscribers received a text message from the government urging them to "go out in the squares and streets to eliminate the armed agents," according to one resident who received the message on his phone.

NATO resumed its Tripoli attacks with heavy bombing runs after nightfall Saturday.

Multiple explosions rocked Tripoli on Saturday night and repeated anti-aircraft fire was seen streaking across the sky, a Reuters reporter in the city said.

Earlier, rebels expelled government forces from the strategic western city of Zawiyah on Saturday, a major victory for the opposition in their march on Tripoli.

The territory remaining under the Libyan ruler's control has been shrinking dramatically in the past three weeks, with opposition fighters advancing on the capital, a metropolis of 2 million people, from the west, south and east.

Zawiya, a coastal city just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, is the biggest prize so far in the rebels' three-week-old offensive.

The rebel presence in Zawiyah cuts off Tripoli's main route to the outside world. Although Gadhafi's forces, determined to retake it, mounted a fierce counter-offensive Friday, the rebels were still in control Saturday and said they expected more fighting.

"Gadhafi will try to take back Zawiyah at any price. He will keep shelling the hospital," said a rebel fighter as he was preparing for midday prayers in the mosque of Bir Hawisa, a nearby village where many civilians are sheltering in safety.

"We will not let that happen. We will fight," he said.

The rebels also claimed to have captured two more towns — Zlitan in the west and Brega in the east.

However, later Saturday, rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said his troops fell back in Brega, losing the industrial section of the key oil port to Gadhafi's forces.

Brega, home to Libya's second-largest hydrocarbon complex and the place where the country's main oil fields feed into for refining, has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.

Hundreds of miles to the east of Tripoli, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman visited the Libyan rebels' de-facto capital of Benghazi and to announce the reopening of Libya's embassy in Washington, this time under control of the opposition Transitional National Council, not Gadhafi's envoys.

The Obama administration earlier in August had approved the reopening after formally recognizing the Benghazi-based Council as Libya's legitimate governing authority. The State Department shut down the Libyan Embassy shortly after it suspended the operations of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli in February.

"Gadhafi's days are numbered," Feltman told reporters in Benghazi on Saturday. "The best case scenario is for Gadhafi to step down now ... that's the best protection for civilians."

NBC News correspondents Richard Engel and Jim Miklaszewski, Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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