Smoke rises above downtown Tripoli following fighting at Bab Al-Aziziya compound. -Reuters Photo

TRIPOLI: Rebel fighters captured Moamer Qadhafi's heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound and headquarters in Tripoli on Tuesday after a day of fierce fighting, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

The defenders had fled, and the whereabouts of Qadhafi or his family were unknown after the insurgents breached the defences as part of a massive assault that began in the morning.

“Bab al-Aziziya is fully under our control now. Colonel Qadhafi and his sons were not there; there is nobody,” Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said from the rebel bastion of Benghazi.

“No one knows where they are,” he added. The correspondent said the rebels had “breached the surrounding cement walls and entered inside. They have taken Bab al-Azizya. Completely. It is finished,” the correspondent said.

“It is an incredible sight,” he said, adding that the bodies of a number of apparent Qadhafi fighters were lying inside, as well as wounded.

The correspondent said rebels found an armoury in one of the buildings and were seizing quantities of ammunition, pistols and assault rifles.

Footage from Al-Jazeera television showed a young rebel climbing atop a huge sculpture of a fist gripping an airplane, a symbol of a US attack on the compound in 1986, trying to break off a piece of it.

Another rebel proudly brandished a seized rifle with a gold-plated barrel and stock saying “Qadhafi people killed us with it.”

As young men tore up a poster portrait of Qadhafi, others were seen kicking around metallic mask of Qadhafi. One young man, a green bandana around his head, then picked it up and held it above his head like a trophy, flashing a smile.

Commenting on the seizure of the compound, a rebel official in the western city of Misrata said that “at the same house used by Qadhafi before to describe the Libyan people as rats, today the independence flag flying on its roof.”

Amid reports that ordinary citizens were beginning to stream into the complex of several hectares (acres), rebel television Al-Ahrar called on people to stay away so that insurgent fighters could mop up inside.

It also urged police in Tripoli to remain at their posts in order to guarantee security.

On Tuesday morning, Qadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, who was reportedly under arrest, made a surprise appearance in Tripoli and announced that his father and family were still in the capital. However, he declined to say where.

“Qadhafi and the entire family are in Tripoli,” Seif told reporters at the Rixos Hotel where many foreign journalists are housed.

Seif also said the regime's forces had deliberately not tried to prevent the rebels from entering the capital. “Allowing the rebels to enter Tripoli was a trick,” he said, without elaborating.

Nato, meanwhile, said Qadhafi was “not a target” for the military alliance. “Nato does not target individuals,” said Operation Unified Protector spokesman, Colonel Roland Lavoie.

“Qadhafi does not constitute a target,” he told reporters in Brussels via video-conference from the mission's Naples headquarters.

In the hours that led up to the storming of the compound in central Tripoli, the sound of the fighting was the most intense heard in the city since rebels arrived three days ago.

The correspondent said rebel forces coming from the western city of Misrata had reinforced the offensive during the afternoon.

The rebel official in Misrata said one of their commanders had been killed in the assault on the compound.

The sky was filled with the sound of heavy and light machine guns as well as mortars, with the overhead roar of NATO jets that had been carrying intensive over flights though it was unclear if there were any air strikes.

Even two kilometres (about a mile) from the fighting, the almost constant whistle of falling bullets could be hear from the rooftops, as the city's mosques chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).