TRIPOLI, Libya — Jubilant rebel fighters overran the seat of power of fugitive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on Tuesday, swarming into his fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli and heralding the symbolic end of his four-decade rule.
Gadhafi's whereabouts were unknown, and loyalist forces continued to put up stiff resistance in scattered areas around the capital. As night fell, his fighters unleashed volleys of artillery onto the city and battles raged near the airport, muting the celebratory mood and sending some revelers rushing indoors for cover.
At least two major towns as well as numerous smaller ones remained under Gadhafi's control, and it is clear that more fighting lies ahead before the rebels can claim the whole country.
Ever defiant, Gadhafi vowed to fight on in a late-night address delivered on a local radio station, because state television had been taken over by rebels the day before. He described the rout of his forces at Bab al-Aziziya as a "tactical retreat," according to the Reuters news agency.
But with the breaching of the walls of the compound from which Gadhafi ruled unchallenged for most of the past 42 years, his stewardship of Libya seemed to be over, making him the third dictator to be toppled since Arabs across the region began to rise up against their rulers in January.
This was also the first outright regime change of the Arab Spring. Though people power forced Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down, their regimes remained largely intact, with military leaders from the old order stepping in to oversee the transition to a still-undefined new one.
Never before has the Arab world witnessed a rebel army overrun a ruler's home and power base in scenes that unfolded live on television — eventually on multiple channels but first on al-Jazeera, which has played an iconic role throughout the Arab revolts.
Footage showed rebel fighters waving from the shell of the house bombed by U.S. warplanes in 1986, which Gadhafi had preserved as a monument to his own survival, and clambering onto the bronze statue of Gadhafi's fist clutching an F-16 fighter jet that was erected to commemorate the attack.
They also swarmed through the extensive grounds where Gadhafi until recently had kept camels and where his supporters gathered throughout the NATO bombing campaign to serve as human shields for their leader.
There was no sign of Gadhafi, and many Libyans suspect he may have long ago moved out of the walled compound, which has been a frequent target of NATO attacks.
The compound was undeniably his power base, relatively modest by the standards of most Arab leaders but bursting with the eccentricities that characterized his rule.
Throughout the day, concerns were growing for the safety of journalists still trapped under fire at the Rixos Hotel nearby.
Attention was already switching to the post-Gadhafi era and the urgent need to establish a new administration to replace the one in flight.
"We have to now begin for the transitional period immediately," Mahmoud Jibril, the chairman of the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, the de facto rebel government, said at a news conference in the Qatari capital, Doha. He said preparations were under way to set up a security council that would gather together rebels from their three main locations.
Meanwhile, key ministers of the Transitional National Council left Benghazi late Tuesday and headed to the town of Zintan, about 100 miles southwest of Tripoli, to establish a first toehold for the eastern-based rebel leadership in the western part of the country, according to Suleiman Foutiya, a council member in Benghazi.
Rebels were also making rapid progress along the coastal highway in the east, breaking out from Brega, the town they seized Monday, and reaching the oil center of Ras Lanuf, according to a rebel army spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani.
Gadhafi's forces were in full retreat, he said, toward Sirte, a heavily guarded bastion that could present the rebels with their biggest military challenge yet.
Bani said, however, that tribal leaders there had reached out to the opposition for a truce and that another Gadhafi stronghold, the desert town of Sabha in the south, had risen up. The claims could not be confirmed.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the rebels surged toward the compound, preparing for a final assault, clapping to the rhythm of the thuds of machine-gun fire and shouting, "God is great!"
Moammar Gadhafi's main military compound, stormed Tuesday by Libyan rebels, was a sprawling blend of barracks, personal living quarters and offices seen as the most defining symbol of the leader's nearly 42-year rule.
The Bab al-Aziziya compound was surrounded by a high wall fitted with sensors, alarms and remote-control infrared cameras that constantly scanned the access roads, authors David Blundy and Andrew Lycett write in their book Gadhafi and the Libyan Revolution.
Gadhafi's home and office sat in a bunker designed by West German engineers to withstand massive attack. The leader's wife and family lived in a two-story building, their opulent living room decorated with glass screens, paintings and sofas.
Gadhafi entertained guests in a Bedouin-style tent pitched near two tennis courts about 200 yards from the family home.
Blundy and Lycett describe Bab al-Aziziya as "a pleasant place, with the security of a prison but the facilities of a country club."
Blundy and Lycett describe the compound as dominated by the 100-foot metal skeleton of a communications mast that kept Gadhafi in touch with his senior army officers in Sirte, Benghazi, and the main control center at the oasis town of Jufrah, 125 miles south of Sirte in the middle of the desert.