BENGHAZI, Libya — The long, brutal reign of Col. Moammar Gadhafi appeared to collapse Sunday as rebels swept into Tripoli, captured two of his sons and set off wild street celebrations in a capital that he had ruled by fear for more than four decades, Libyan and NATO officials said.
With NATO bombings paving the way, rebel forces entered Tripoli with surprising ease and by early today controlled large swaths of the city. Gadhafi's personal guard surrendered to rebel forces, and live television footage showed crowds of opposition supporters in Tripoli's Green Square — the regime's symbolic heart — unfurling the tricolor flag of pre-Gadhafi Libya and smashing the ruler's portraits in scenes that were unthinkable just days ago.
"This is historic," Amal Abdelrazk, a 42-year-old resident of Tripoli, said by phone. "After 41 years, eight months and 27 days, we witness this moment.
"The whole thing is like a dream."
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President Obama, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., said in a statement late Sunday: "Tonight, the momentum against the Gadhafi regime has reached a tipping point. Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant."
Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told McClatchy that his forces were hunting Gadhafi in and around Tripoli. Gadhafi's whereabouts were unknown, but a U.S. official said, "We have no reason to believe (he) has left the country."
Late Sunday Gadhafi made a brief audio statement on Libyan TV, sounding desperate as he called on individual tribes and cities to "take weapons" and defend "beautiful Tripoli."
But the mercurial leader was nowhere to be seen, and for many Libyans, the regime's death blow had come anyway with the rebels' arrest of Saif al Islam, Gadhafi's feared and powerful son and onetime heir apparent. He had vowed after the uprising against his father began earlier this year that the regime would fight its opponents "until the last bullet."
The rebels' Transitional National Council in the eastern city of Benghazi confirmed Saif al Islam's arrest. Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, told CNN that he would begin talks with the rebels today on transferring him to the custody of the court, which issued a warrant for his arrest in June on charges of crimes against humanity.
Another son, Saadi, also was arrested, and a third, Mohammed, reportedly surrendered. He appeared on the Al Jazeera satellite channel and looked scared and shaken, saying his house was surrounded by rebels.
Thousands of Libyans celebrated in Benghazi, cheering and dancing to mark the apparent climax to an uprising that began there more than six months ago. "Finally, Libya is liberated," said Ibrahim Shebani, 29, who joined the raucous party near Benghazi's courthouse. "Stay tuned, world — you will finally get to meet the real Libyans."
It marked a stunningly successful final push by rebel forces — for months described as ragtag and badly organized, and thought to be reeling from the mysterious assassination just weeks ago of their commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, a longtime Gadhafi lieutenant who defected at the start of the uprising.
Younes' death instead appeared to embolden the rebels, who in recent days routed pro-Gadhafi fighters from the strategic town of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, and surged into the capital Sunday with little trouble.
"It's over. There is no more Gadhafi, no more secret police, no more blood," said Bani, the rebels' spokesman.
Obama, whose administration has recognized the rebel Transitional National Council as Libya's legitimate government, called on the opposition to "continue to demonstrate the leadership that is necessary to steer the country through a transition" by respecting human rights, avoiding civilian casualties and paving the way to democracy.
"A season of conflict must lead to one of peace," Obama said.
Gadhafi has cut a dramatic, erratic and eccentric figure across the world stage for the past half-century.
To the West, he ran an outlaw regime that funded revolutionary groups, including the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panthers. He was said to be behind terrorist attacks across Europe — the most notorious being the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet that crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 others on the ground.
Gadhafi's speeches before the United the Nations became tortuously long harangues. He often dressed in sumptuous traditional garb and traveled with a retinue of armed female bodyguards and a huge Bedouin tent.
The son of Bedouins himself, born in a tent, Gadhafi attended the Libyan Military Academy. There he and some fellow disgruntled officers hatched a plot to overthrow Libya's monarchy, which they did on Sept. 1, 1969, when he was 27.
The United States had long ago cut ties with his regime, but a rapprochement began under President George W. Bush, who sought Gadhafi's cooperation against terrorism. He renounced support for terrorist groups and gave up his nuclear-weapons ambitions, and was widely believed to be grooming Saif al Islam to succeed him when the Arab Spring protests blossomed this year — and began the downfall of his regime.