Libyan fighters drove the last holdouts of Moammar Gadhafi out of his hometown of Sirte in fierce gunbattles Thursday, then declared victory over the last major resistance two months after the fall of Tripoli. Fighters reported to have captured the ousted leader, but Libyan officials and NATO said they could not immediately confirm.
The Misrata Military Council, one of multiple command groups for revolutionary forces, said its fighters captured Gadhafi. Another commander, Abdel-Basit Haroun, says Gadhafi was killed when an airstrike hit a convoy trying to flee.
The spokesman for Libya's transitional government, Jalal al-Gallal, and its military spokesman Abdul-Rahman Busin said the reports have not been confirmed.
Col. Roland Lavoie, spokesman for NATO's operational headquarters in Naples, Italy, said the alliance's aircraft Thursday morning struck two vehicles of pro-Gadhafi forces "which were part of a larger group maneuvering in the vicinity of Sirte."
But NATO officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance to alliance rules, said the alliance also could not independently confirm whether Gadhafi was killed or captured.
The ecstatic former rebels celebrated the fall of Sirte after weeks of bloody siege by firing endless rounds into the sky, pumping their guns, knives and even a meat cleaver in the air and singing the national anthem.
In the central quarter where Thursday's final battle took place, the fighters looking like the same ragtag force that started the uprising eight months ago jumped up and down with joy and flashed V-for-victory signs. Some burned the green Gadhafi flag, then stepped on it with their boots.
They chanted "Allah akbar," or "God is great" in Arabic, while one fighter climbed a traffic light pole to unfurl the revolution's flag, which he first kissed. Discarded military uniforms of Gadhafi's fighters littered the streets. One revolutionary fighter waved a silver trophy in the air while another held up a box of firecrackers, then set them off.
"Our forces control the last neighborhood in Sirte," Hassan Draoua, a member of Libya's interim National Transitional Council, told The Associated Press in Tripoli. "The city has been liberated."
Despite the fall of Tripoli on Aug. 21, Gadhafi loyalists mounted fierce resistance in several areas, including Sirte, preventing Libya's new leaders from declaring full victory in the eight-month civil war. Earlier this week, revolutionary fighters gained control of one stronghold, Bani Walid, and by Tuesday said they had squeezed Gadhafi's forces in Sirte into a residential area of about 700 square yards but were still coming under heavy fire from surrounding buildings.
Reporters at the scene watched as the final assault began around 8 a.m. and ended about 90 minutes later. Just before the battle, about five carloads of Gadhafi loyalists tried to flee the enclave down the coastal highway that leads out of the city. But they were met by gunfire from the revolutionaries, who killed at least 20 of them.
After the battle, revolutionaries began searching homes and buildings looking for any hiding Gadhafi fighters. At least 16 were captured, along with cases of ammunition and trucks loaded with weapons. Reporters saw revolutionaries beating captured Gadhafi men in the back of trucks and officers intervening to stop them.
Deputy Defense Minister Fawzi Abu Katif on Wednesday told the AP that authorities still believe Gadhafi's son Muatassim is among the ex-regime figures holed up in the diminishing area in Sirte. He was not seen on the ground after the final battle on Thursday.
In an illustration of how difficult and slow the fighting for Sirte was, it took the anti-Gadhafi fighters, who also faced disorganization in their own ranks, two days to capture a single residential building.
Gadhafi loyalists who have escaped could still continue the fight and attempt to organize an insurgency using the vast amount of weapons Gadhafi was believed to have stored in hideouts in the remote southern desert.
Unlike Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi had no well-organized political party that could form the basis of an insurgent leadership. However, regional and ethnic differences have already appeared among the ranks of the revolutionaries, possibly laying the foundation for civil strife.
Gadhafi has issued several audio recordings trying to rally supporters. Libyan officials have said they believe he's hiding somewhere in the vast southwestern desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria.
Associated Press Writer Kim Gamel in Tripoli contributed to this report.