TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) - Hundreds of Libyan rebels stormed Moammar Gadhafi's compound Tuesday, charging wildly through the symbolic heart of the crumbling regime as they killed loyalist troops, looted armories and knocked the head off a statue of the besieged dictator. But they found no sign of the man himself.
The storming of Bab al-Aziziya, long the nexus of Gadhafi's power, marked the effective collapse of his 42-year-old regime. But with Gadhafi and his powerful sons still unaccounted for - and gunbattles flaring across the nervous city - the fighters cannot declare victory.
The rebel force entered the compound after fighting for five hours with Gadhafi loyalists outside, using mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They beat and killed some of those who defended the compound and hauled away crates of weapons and trucks with guns mounted on the back in a frenzy of looting.
"We're looking for Gadhafi now. We have to find him now," said Sohaib Nefati, a rebel sitting against a wall with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Abdel-Aziz Shafiya, a 19-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage with a rocket-propelled grenade slung over one shoulder and a Kalashnikov over another, said the rebels believe Gadhafi is inside the compound but hiding underground.
"Wasn't he the one who called us rats? Now he is the rat underground," he said.
Associated Press reporters inside the compound said parts of it appeared to still be under control of government forces who were firing toward the rebels, making for an atmosphere of joyful celebration mixed with tension. The air was thick with smoke from the battles and the sound of crackling gunfire was constant. Rebels chanted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" and on loudspeakers they cried: "Hamdullah, hamdullah" or "Thank God."
As the fighters stormed in, they captured a guard at the gates and threw him to the ground, slamming rifle butts into his back. A hostile crowd gathered around, punching and kicking him until one rebel stepped in, stood over him and kept the crowd at bay. Inside the walls, a few bodies of Gadhafi fighters - one with a gaping head wound from a gunshot - were sprawled on the ground.
Several young men wrenched the head from a statue of Gadhafi and kicked it around. One lifted it above his head while his jubilant comrades danced and yelled around him. Fighters with long beards hugged each other and flashed the "V" for victory sign. Others carried injured rebels to ambulances.
A fighter climbed atop the iconic statue of a huge golden fist clenching a model of an American warplane and shot his machine gun in the air in celebration. The statue stands outside a building that was once Gadhafi's home, preserved with the pockmarks of an American bombing in 1986 as a symbol of his defiance.
Gadhafi delivered many a fiery speech from the balcony of that house, railing against the West. It was there that he appeared on television six months ago, at the beginning of the uprising, and mocked his opponents.
Thousands of rebels converged on the compound after it was breached, snatching ammunition and arms from depots inside. They found brand-new rifles still in their paper wrappings.
The storming of the compound was a new high for the rebels in what has been an emotional roller coaster since they moved into Tripoli on Sunday night. It began with euphoria and claims that they had taken over most of the city with little resistance. The first night they partied in Green Square, a major symbol of the regime where Gadhafi supporters had held almost nightly rallies throughout the uprising. And it seemed Gadhafi rule was teetering on the brink of collapse.
By Tuesday morning, it looked like the capital might descend into bloody urban warfare. There was sporadic gunfire in many parts. The rebels were in control of parts of the city, though it was not clear how extensive their control really was. Then the fighting took focus around Gadhafi's compound.
The Libyan leader has not been heard from since Sunday, when rebels entered Tripoli and he delivered a series of angry and defiant audio messages that were apparently phoned in to state television.
In other parts of the capital, the rebels said they were also in control of state television. They raised their tricolor flag on the top of the building. Rebels claimed they also control the airport.
Libya's former deputy ambassador to the U.N. said he expected the entire country would be in rebel hands within 72 hours. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who with other diplomats has continued to work at the Libyan mission since disavowing Gadhafi in February, said Tuesday he expects Libya will be "totally liberated."