TRIPOLI _ Explosions and gunfire rattled parts of Libya’s capital Tuesday as rebels prepared to launch an offensive against the huge central compound of Moammar Gadhafi, the aging colonel whose rule appeared to be crumbling in the face of NATO airstrikes and opposition advances.
Residents living near Gadhafi’s Bab Azizya compound, a vast fortress in the middle of Tripoli, reported indiscriminate gun and tank fire by loyalist forces attempting to fend off a rebel encirclement of the compound. NATO warplanes could be heard scouring the skies above.
As many as 500 highly trained fighters from the rebel-controlled city of Misurata were said to be moving to participate in the battle against the compound.
Residents of the capital described corpses on roadways and deprivation as the battle appeared to reach a climax.
“There is fire and rockets,” said Faiza bin Taleb, 43, sitting in a car outside Tripoli with her three children in the backseat. “We have no electricity and no water. It’s difficult to leave our homes but my children were afraid and constantly crying.”
“For the Gadhafi regime, this is the final chapter,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Tuesday. “The end is near, and events are moving fast. What’s clear to everybody is that Gadhafi is history, and the sooner he realizes it, the better.”
Rebels based in the western Nafusa Mountain range continued to pour into the Gadhafi-controlled lowlands, challenging Gadhafi’s forces in and around the capital’s international airport. One rebel commander said Gadhafi was finished but had up to two weeks of fight left in him.
A sense of paranoia pervaded rebel ranks, with rumors of a “fifth column” of Gadhafi loyalists firing at rebels while flying the red, black and green flag of the opposition.
“There are snipers here,” said Hisham Hassan, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in the western Tripoli district of Zanzour. “Sometimes they are atop mosques and sometimes on schools.”
The heavy fighting has taken a toll on the city’s civilians. Dr. Fathi Arabi, an orthopedist at Tripoli’s Central Hospital, said between 50 and 100 people had been killed and hundreds wounded at his facility alone.
But the sense of joy at overcoming Gadhafi was palpable. Several residents said the opposition controlled vast swaths of the city.
At checkpoints inside Tripoli, rebels placed the once-ubiquitous canvas portraits of Gadhafi on the ground for drivers to run over.
A two-man team armed with spray paint scoured public buildings and roadways to deface his portrait and cross out his name. Rebels ignored news that Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent, Saif Islam Gadhafi, was alive and well and giving interviews, and not imprisoned as the rebel leadership had claimed.
“We know Gadhafi is gone,” said Hossam Khalifa, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in eastern Tripoli.
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Rym Marrouch and Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report.