TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Tripoli began to look like a solidly rebel-held city on Friday, the calmest day in the capital since Moammar Gadhafi’s opponents swept in nearly a week ago. Some even celebrated in the streets, marching and chanting, "Hold your head high! You are a free Libyan."
There were still occasional gunbattles, but nothing like the bloody firefight Thursday in which rebels drove loyalists from a neighborhood close to Gadhafi’s captured compound.
As the fighting waned, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva expressed concern about treatment of detainees on both sides. The ICRC has been able to visit some prisoners, but "there are hundreds more probably," spokesman Steven Anderson said.
Dozens of decomposing bodies were piled up in and near an abandoned hospital next to the Gadhafi compound, revealing some of the war’s brutality. One hospital room had 21 bodies lying on gurneys. The floors were covered with shattered glass and bloodstains, and medical equipment was strewn about.
It was unclear when the men died or who killed them, but they had darker skin than most Libyans. Gadhafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa.
In a new advance for the rebels Friday, fighters took control of the main border crossing with Tunisia after battling Gadhafi loyalists who had held out there, Tunisia’s official news agency reported. The rebels control other posts along the border, but Ras Ajdir is the primary crossing between the two countries and would allow them to more easily bring supplies into Libya.
In Tripoli, some residents emerged gingerly from homes where they had taken cover for days. They looked upon a shattered city, largely without power or water and stinking with garbage, but also with no sign of the man who had ruled their lives for the past 42 years. Gadhafi’s whereabouts were unknown. His portraits have been trampled, his green flags shredded and replaced with the rebel red, black and green.
Umm Yahya, who limped on a cane through Tripoli’s shuttered downtown, leaning on her daughter for help, said her family had been surviving for days on pasta and tomato paste, but the fear and suffering in six months of civil war were worth it to taste freedom.
"We can speak freely now. We can talk on the phone," she said with a tired smile. "People are comfortable now spiritually and with that, anything is possible."
Rebels were pushing Gadhafi fighters to Tripoli’s outskirts. Abdul Majid Mgleta, a rebel military chief, said there were still some pockets of resistance, but he hoped to take full control over the capital and capture Gadhafi within days.
Still, Tripoli’s rebel military commander was confident enough to declare the capital liberated.
"Libya is now free with dignity," Abdel-Hakim Belhaj told reporters Friday night. He added that hundreds of Gadhafi fighters had surrendered in the past two days.
Rebel fighters and NATO turned their attention 250 miles (400 kilometers) east to Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, his last major bastion of support. British warplanes struck a large bunker there, while local rebel commander Fadl-Allah Haron said that if city residents don’t surrender fast, "a battle will be waiting for them there."
In the five-day battle over Tripoli, at least 230 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, according to doctors at three major hospitals. With bodies still in the streets, the real toll is likely far higher.
In the Abu Salim neighborhood, the scene of Thursday’s ferocious clashes, there was massive destruction along the main road, including torched cars.
Three charred bodies lay on the ground floor of a bombed-out firehouse where eight wounded men, apparently Gadhafi supporters, had been abandoned.
Abu Baker Amin, his right leg broken by a grenade, said he had not received food or water for two days. An emaciated man lay on the floor, pleading for water. Another man appeared to be in too much pain to speak.
In the parking lot, rebels kept guard over four injured men they said were Gadhafi loyalists. Rebels in the area said there were no hospitals available or cars to take the men for treatment, and that in any case they wanted to interrogate them first.
"These are from the Gadhafi brigades!" a neighbor exclaimed.
Eventually, a rebel took all the wounded he could fit in his pickup truck to a hospital. He was stopped repeatedly at checkpoints, where some rebels kicked the prisoners, spat on them and tried to stop their transfer.
The abandoned hospital where the bodies were found is near the firehouse. Nearly 50 bodies were stacked in three areas — a parking lot, a ward and in the basement.
Another 15 decomposing corpses lay in a grassy area surrounding a traffic roundabout on the outskirts of Abu Salim. Five of the dead were in a tent hospital; one appeared to have been killed while resting on a mattress.
Rebels often suspect people from sub-Saharan Africa of being mercenaries, though many are simply migrant workers.
One of the injured men in the firehouse said he was from Niger. Asked why he was in Libya, he said, "I really don’t know."
Mohammed al-Egely, the rebels’ justice minister, said he has visited detained Gadhafi fighters and they were being treated according to international humanitarian law. He said the rebels are doing the best they can.
"We are in a state of war — the airport hasn’t even been liberated yet," he said. "Do you expect the fighters to bring them (prisoners) flowers? They are all fighting — and so there will be victims from each side."
Hundreds of people marched in celebration of Gadhafi’s defeat after noon prayers in a mosque near the city’s central square. They chanted, "Hold your head high! You are a free Libyan" — borrowing a cry heard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the days after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the Egyptian uprising.
In the afternoon, shots were fired at the roof terrace of the Corinthia hotel, where scores of journalists were working. The shots came from nearby high-rise buildings. A rebel dressed in fatigues crossed the terrace to the fence and began shooting randomly at the buildings. At one point, rebels also fired anti-aircraft guns and a large explosion was heard. There has been fighting around the hotel for several days now.
In a rural area between the neighborhood and Tripoli’s airport, rebels detained seven men and a woman and loaded them into a pickup truck, saying Gadhafi fighters might try to blend in with civilians.
"Things are still not stable and we are arresting anybody we find suspicious and taking them to the military council," said field commander Fathi Shneibi.
Rebel leaders said they will establish a new interim government in the capital within 30 days, as part of a move from the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell into opposition hands early in the war.
The new interim government will likely include some who worked in the Gadhafi regime, but were sympathetic to the rebels, said Mahmoud Shammam, information minister for the rebels’ National Transitional Council.
"The only people we are going to exclude are the people who killed others and stole money," Shammam said.
The council may get some badly needed cash soon. Britain is seeking approval to release about $1.6 billion in seized Libyan bank notes to help pay public sector workers.
NATO, meanwhile, said its warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near Sirte, a city of 150,000. Rebels are trying to advance toward Sirte but expect fierce resistance from Gadhafi loyalists.
The two main tribes in Sirte rejected rebel offers to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Tribal loyalties are strong in the desert nation of 6 million.