From the first cautious ventures out of the hard-fought prize of Zawiyah, the rebels’ advance became a headlong rush into the heart of Tripoli and Green Square, the symbol of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s power. By nightfall, the rebels were in command of the square, the scene of so many manic, forced declarations of fealty to Colonel Qaddafi. Now, the portraits were ripped down, along with the green flags that marked his rule. Instead, young men waved rebel flags in the renamed Martyrs’ Square.
By 2:30 a.m. Monday, a wary quiet had taken hold. Rebel fighters secured the entrances to the square and staffed checkpoints in parts of the capital. There were small, ecstatic gatherings, but there were also long, silent streets in a city of frayed nerves, and rumors of roving government soldiers and snipers everywhere. After their speedy advance, the rebels’ hold on parts of central Tripoli seemed evident but also tenuous.
Bullets ricocheted here and there, and sounds of gunfights erupted sporadically but faded by the early morning. The road from Zawiyah to Tripoli was jammed with hundreds of cars, many with fighters aboard, in what looked like a move to further secure the city.
Sunday began with the sound of rockets. The roar subsided as the rebels moved beyond Zawiyah, a city that had taken days of heavy fighting to win back from the Qaddafi forces. But each time, the fighters found it a temporary jolt rather than a protracted battle.
The first major test was the military base for the feared Khamis Brigade, a heavy armored unit commanded by one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, in the town of Mayah. The brigade is the keystone of the so-called ring of steel defense line about 17 miles west of Tripoli, and for months NATO forces had identified it as the main obstacle to an advance to the capital.
Locals fear it: the Khamis Brigade’s troops do what they want, residents say, and get all the guns they want. Since the February uprising, the base has also served as a prison for government opponents.
On Sunday, the bodies of six Qaddafi soldiers lay near the entrance. A group of prisoners released from the base spoke of their torture and cried. Fighters cheered and grabbed what they could, including the most popular item, a Belgian gun, stacking pickup trucks high with weapons. Emad Ali took two bottles of battery fluid and some grease.
“I wanted something useful for the soldiers,” he said.
The soldiers did not need much help from Mr. Ali. NATO warplanes had flown overhead for days, bombing targets in the capital and its surroundings to clear the path to Tripoli.
An uprising in Tripoli on Saturday night also laid the groundwork. At the “zero hour,” as the rebels called it, residents took to the streets and held demonstrations that were met with deadly force by Qaddafi soldiers — who also further exposed their heavy artillery to NATO surveillance, one rebel leader said.
All day, news of fresh advances made its way back from the front lines, and then became obsolete. The rebels flew through town after town until they reached Janzur, a Tripoli suburb.
A convoy met them, but it was of jubilant Tripoli residents who had heard they were coming, honking car horns and screaming and waving out their windows as the fighters went past.
In Gargaresh, an affluent neighborhood in western Tripoli, residents spilled into the streets — at first in disbelief, compulsively sharing the news; then in joy, hugging and cheering — as they received text messages saying that the rebels had entered the city.
“My country is free! God is great! My country is free!” screamed one Gargaresh resident, reached by telephone. He had to shout — the rhythmic roar of the crowd with him drowned out any quieter conversation.
He and his neighbors had spent weeks inside their houses, he said, trying to keep trips outside as infrequent as possible because they feared Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces. But on Sunday night, they all reunited in a triumphant block party that lasted all night.
“They went in such a big hurry,” said Majid el-Haif, 32, a resident of the Siyahiya neighborhood who was in the street with his neighbors to celebrate the quick retreat of pro-Qaddafi forces. “It was so smooth.”
Jehad Nga contributed reporting from Doha, Qatar.