TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Joyful Libyan rebels overran Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli bastion on Tuesday, seizing weapons and loot and destroying symbols of a 42-year dictatorship they declared was now over as they set about hunting down the fallen ruler and his sons.
"It's over! Gaddafi is finished!" yelled one fighter over a cacophony of celebratory gunfire across the Bab al-Aziziya compound, from where Gaddafi orchestrated eccentric defiance of Western powers and disdain for his own people for four decades.
Western powers who backed the revolt with air power held off from pronouncing victory although a swift return to order is high on their priorities, given fears that ethnic and tribal divisions among the rebels could descend into the kind of anarchy that would thwart hopes of Libya resuming oil exports.
Rebel National Council chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who was until February a loyal minister of Gaddafi, cautioned: "It is too early to say that the battle of Tripoli is over. That won't happen until Gaddafi and his sons are captured."
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the rebel government, promised a transition toward a democracy for all Libyans. "The whole world is looking at Libya," he said, warning against summary justice.
"We must not sully the final page of the revolution."
At the Bab al-Aziziya, long a no-go area, armed men broke up a gilded statue of Gaddafi, kicking its face. Others ripped up his portrait or climbed on a monument depicting a clenched fist, which Gaddafi erected after a U.S. air strike in 1986.
Another rebel sported a heavily braided, peaked military cap of a kind favoured by the colonel, who seized power in 1969. He said he had taken the hat from Gaddafi's bedroom.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a rebel commander, said he did not know where Gaddafi or his sons were. "They ran like rats."
Other rebels, saying casualties had been light, thought the 69-year-old "Brother Leader", who has not been seen in public for two months, was probably not far away. But they also reported clashes near his southern desert stronghold of Sabha.
Reuters correspondents in Tripoli said there still appeared to be some hostile fire around the city centre as darkness fell and looting continued. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We're in the death throes of this regime ... But it's still a very difficult and dangerous time. It's not over yet."
Later, dozens of youths danced in Tripoli's Green Square, another Gaddafi showpiece arena. They waved the red, green and black flag of the rebels to the sound of gunfire, though most of the city's two million people prudently stayed indoors
One man greeted the fall of a third autocrat brought low by the Arab Spring and forecast others would share their fate: "1. Tunisia 2. Egypt 3. Libya ? Syria ? Yemen," his sign read.
Rebel officials, who said they hoped to move from Benghazi in the east to the capital this week, spoke of trying Gaddafi in Libya rather than sending him to The Hague, where he and two others have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
The Russian head of the International Chess Federation, who had visited Tripoli in June, told Reuters Gaddafi called him on Tuesday to say he would stay in Tripoli and "fight to the end".
But he had few places to make a stand. His home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast between Tripoli and rebel Benghazi, was expected to welcome rebel forces shortly, Abdel-Jalil said. But Jibril spoke of a need still to "liberate" southern desert areas like Sabha and of fighting there.
"It really looks like it's pretty much over," said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's in London.
"There might be a few diehards who would keep going until he is captured or killed, but not many. And if Gaddafi didn't have many places to hide before, he has even fewer now."
"House to house! Room to room!" chanted some men at Bab al-Aziziya, calling for a search of its bunkers and tunnels in a mocking echo of the words Gaddafi used six months ago when he vowed to crush the early stirrings of the Arab Spring revolt.
Inspired by neighbours in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans who rose in the east found protection from NATO air forces. Western governments abandoned a short-lived rapprochement with long-time foe Gaddafi to drive him from power and now want to see order imposed and a swift restoration of Libyan oil exports.
After a meandering ebb and flow across the desert, rebel forces galvanised by Western advisers, NATO air strikes and, it is widely assumed, shadowy foreign commandos, swept into the capital at the weekend end to be greeted by many residents.
Rebel leader Abdel-Jalil said NATO bombs had helped his men breach the walls of the Bab al-Aziziya on Tuesday.
In the east of the country, government troops were pulling out of areas that are key to oil production, rebels said.
Jibril said they had formed a new body including field commanders from a variety of local revolutionary groups to coordinate security. There is a long history of friction among villages and tribes, Arabs and ethnic Berbers, and between the east and west of a state formed as an Italian colony in 1934.
The U.S. State Department, in a signal of the kind of activity likely to gather pace in diplomatic meetings over the coming days, said it was seeking the immediate release of up to $1.5 billion of frozen Libyan government assets to the rebels.
Washington, along with France, Italy, Britain and Qatar, will hope for diplomatic and business benefits for their backing, at the expense of Russia, China and others who were slow to abandon Gaddafi after a U.N. vote condemning him.
In Tripoli, ordinary Libyans, or at least those with the guns and guts enough to risk the chaos in Bab al-Aziziya, were helping themselves to the bounty Gaddafi's inner circle had amassed in villas dotted around the city centre compound.
Flat screen televisions and hi-fi, as well as a vacuum cleaner and Cuban cigars, were all being hefted away along with the sort of trophy rifles and handguns favoured by the elite.
For many, as in other Arab nations where autocrats have been overthrown this year, the most important benefit was not tangible: "Gaddafi is now gone and we are free," said Turqi, a shopkeeper in the capital where civilians have kept indoors during three days of sporadic sniper fire and skirmishing.
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said he believed Gaddafi was still in Libya and remained a threat. He also said the United States was monitoring chemical weapons sites in Libya given worries that groups hostile to Western interests could try to seize stocks once accumulated by Gaddafi.
Among others, al Qaeda affiliates are active in North Africa and may see opportunities in Libya, however little sympathy the official rebel leadership may have for Islamists.
There were growing concerns for civilians in Tripoli, after days of siege and fighting in which officials suggested hundreds of combatants might have been killed or wounded. Aid agencies said they hoped to get supplies in soon.
At a private house several miles from the centre, wounded from the fighting were being treated, to the sound of gunfire.
"We need medication and stretchers, this situation is a disaster," medical student Shuaib Rais told Reuters.
After Gaddafi's son and long-time heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, confounded rebel claims of his capture by appearing to journalists at the Bab al-Aziziya compound early on Tuesday, several analysts said the credibility of the disparate opposition movement had suffered a serious setback.
It appeared the report of his capture was premature.
Noman Benotman, senior analyst at Britain's Quilliam think tank and an associate of Gaddafi's former spy chief, said: "Gaddafi is banking on the rebels making a mess of Tripoli and causing chaos. He is relying on them to behave badly.
"They want rival militia zones to start springing up ... It's critical for the rebels to get their act together."
Outside powers, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have been at pains to characterise the revolt against Gaddafi as quite different from the Western invasion of Iraq, which was followed by a backlash against U.S. allies in the country.
"We've sought to learn the lessons of the failures of Iraq," said Britain's minister for foreign aid Andrew Mitchell.
Western leaders rule out sending troops but have put in civilian advisers to bolster efforts to create institutions in Libya that can replace the personality cult around Gaddafi, who has ruled as long as most Libyans can remember.
One of the world's longest surviving rulers, he is most associated in the West with years of backing what he called anti-colonial movements, including the PLO and IRA, and for taking responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing.
Reporting by Missy Ryan, Peter Graff, Ulf Laessing, Zohra Bensemra and Leon Malherbe in Tripoli, Thomas Grove in Moscow, Robert Birsel in Benghazi, William Maclean and Peter Apps in London, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Richard Valdmanis and Giles Elgood in Tunis, Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Deepa Babington in Rome and Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Writing by Alastair Macdonald