(Adds Russia, China comment, Tripoli colour, Abdel-Jalil
* Gaddafi says withdrawal was tactical; whereabouts unknown
* Rebel leaders to meet Western envoys in Qatar
* Fighting in southern desert city seen as last redoubt
By Peter Graff and Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI, Aug 24 (Reuters) - A beleaguered Muammar Gaddafi
vowed on Wednesday to fight on to death or victory after
jubilant rebels forced him to abandon his Tripoli stronghold in
an apparently decisive blow against the Libyan leader's 42-year
Rebels ransacked Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya bastion, seizing
arms and smashing symbols of a ruler whose fall will transform
Libya and rattle other Arab autocrats facing popular uprisings.
Gaddafi said the withdrawal from his headquarters in the
heart of the capital was a tactical move after it had been hit
by 64 NATO air strikes and he vowed "martyrdom" or victory in
his six-month war against the Western alliance and Libyan foes.
Urging Libyans to cleanse the streets of traitors, he said
he had secretly toured Tripoli.
"I have been out a bit in Tripoli discreetly, without being
seen by people, and ... I did not feel that Tripoli was in
danger," Gaddafi told loyalist media outlets.
His whereabouts after leaving the compound, perhaps via a
tunnel network to adjoining districts, remain unknown, although
he appears to have been in Tripoli, at least until recently.
Rebels said fighting was still going on near the Rixos
hotel, where armed Gaddafi loyalists have prevented foreign
journalists from leaving, and in eastern areas of the city.
A Reuters reporter near the hotel around midday (1000 GMT)
on Wednesday heard rifle fire and heavy anti-aircraft guns,
which have been used by both sides against ground targets.
Earlier in the morning, a Reuters reporter inside the hotel,
Missy Ryan, said food and water were running low. Pro-Gaddafi
gunmen who had patrolled the hotel compound were no longer in
sight, she said, but it was not clear if they had withdrawn.
Residents remained fearful, with empty streets, shuttered
shops and piles of garbage testifying that life is still far
from normal in the city of 2 million. Rebels manned checkpoints
along the main thoroughfare into the city from the west.
People were defacing or erasing Gaddafi portraits and other
symbols in a city where they were once ubiquitous. They painted
over street names and renamed them for rebel fighters who had
become "martyrs". Plaques were torn off government offices.
"There are some fights going but hopefully today everything
will be over," one rebel fighter said.
Fighting was reported on Tuesday night in a southern desert
city, Sabha, that rebels forecast would be Gaddafi loyalists'
last redoubt. Pro-Gaddafi forces were shelling the towns of
Zuara and Ajelat, west of Tripoli, Al-Arabiya TV said.
Omar al-Ghirani, a rebel spokesman, said loyalist forces had
fired seven Grad missiles at residential areas of the capital,
causing people to flee their homes in panic.
He told Reuters Gaddafi troops had also fired mortar rounds
in the area of the Tripoli airport.
"VOLCANO OF LAVA"
The continued shooting suggested the six-month popular
insurgency against Gaddafi, a maverick Arab nationalist who
defied the West and kept an iron hand on his oil-exporting,
country for four decades, has not completely triumphed yet.
A spokesman for Gaddafi said the Libyan leader was ready to
resist the rebels for months, or even years.
"We will turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under
the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents," Moussa
Ibrahim said, speaking by telephone to pro-Gaddafi channels.
Rebel leaders would not enjoy peace if they carried out
their plans to move to Tripoli from their headquarters in the
eastern city of Benghazi, he said.
But Gaddafi was already history in the eyes of the rebels
and their political leaders planned high-level talks in Qatar on
Wednesday with envoys of the United States, Britain, France,
Turkey and the United Arab Emirates on the way ahead.
Another meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Istanbul.
China urged a "stable transition of power" in Libya and said
on Wednesday it was in contact with the rebel council, the
clearest sign yet that Beijing has effectively shifted
recognition to forces poised to defeat Gaddafi.
China "respects the choice of the Libyan people", Foreign
Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
A senior representative for reconstruction in the rebel
movement said a new government would honour all the oil
contracts granted during the Gaddafi era, including those of
Chinese companies. "The contracts in the oil fields are
absolutely sacrosanct," Ahmed Jehani told Reuters Insider TV.
"All lawful contracts will be honoured whether they are in
the oil and gas complex or in the contracting... We have
contracts that were negotiated ... they were auctioned openly
... There's no question of revoking any contract."
A spokesman for rebel-run oil firm AGOCO had warned on Monday
Chinese and Russian firms could lose out on oil contracts for
failing to back the rebellion.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged Gaddafi and his foes
to stop fighting and talk. "We want the Libyans to come to an
agreement among themselves," he said, suggesting that Moscow
could recognise the rebel government if it unites the country.
China and Russia, usually opposed to foreign intervention in
sovereign states, did not veto a U.N. Security Council
resolution in March that authorised NATO to use air power to
protect Libyan civilians. But they criticised the scale of the
air campaign and called for a negotiated solution.
The victors are in no mood for dialogue with Gaddafi.
"It's over! Gaddafi is finished!" yelled a fighter over a
din of celebratory gunfire across the Bab al-Aziziya compound,
Gaddafi's sprawling citadel of power in the Libyan capital.
KEEP REVOLUTION CLEAN, REBEL LEADER SAYS
The hunt to find Gaddafi is now on. Colonel Ahmed Bani, a
rebel, told Al-Arabiya TV he was probably holed up somewhere in
Tripoli. "It will take a long time to find him," he said.
Some reckon the eight months it took to track down Saddam
Hussein in Iraq in 2003 helped foster the insurgency there.
Rebel National Council chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was
until February a loyal minister of Gaddafi, cautioned: "It is
too early to say that the battle of Tripoli is over. That won't
happen until Gaddafi and his sons are captured."
In an interview with Italy's La Repubblica, he promised
parliamentary and presidential elections in eight months' time.
"If I were to be nominated president, it would only be a
temporary appointment and I would remain in that position only
until the next elections, which would be the first free
elections in our country," Abdel-Jalil said.
He said the council favoured trying Gaddafi and his family
in Libya rather than sending him to The Hague, where he and two
others have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the rebel government, also promised
a transition towards democracy for Libyans. "The whole world is
looking at Libya," he said, warning against summary justice.
"We must not sully the final page of the revolution."
Jibril said rebels had formed a new body including field
commanders from a variety of local revolutionary groups to
coordinate security. There is a history of friction among
villages and tribes, Arabs and ethnic Berbers, and between the
east and west of a state formed as an Italian colony in 1934.
Western powers who backed the revolt with air power held off
from pronouncing victory although they are keen for a swift
return to order, given fears any post-Gaddafi anarchy would
thwart hopes of Libya resuming oil exports soon.
The fall of Gaddafi, with the arresting images on Arab
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.