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In Tripoli, celebrations anticipate victory, even as fighting rages

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Rebels celebrate in Tripoli
  • NEW: Full-pitched battle under way at compound across street from Rixos hotel
  • NEW: Journalists staying at the hotel are forbidden to leave
  • NEW: Rebels pouring into Tripoli cheered on by an emboldened population
  • State TV host who brandished gun on air is arrested, sequestered

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- As dusk approached on Monday, emboldened residents began to filter out into the streets of the capital as the regime of Moammar Gadhafi teetered on collapse, largely heedless of the fighting between rebels and loyalist holdouts that continued to rage in parts of the city.

What appears to be a significant pocket of resistance is virtually across the street from the Rixos Al Nasr Hotel, where pro-government forces still are in control and are fighting fiercely to defend the presidential compound nearby.

The hotel was shaken by huge explosions and pinged by stray bullets as foreign media representatives who have been staying there were forbidden to leave, and were without food, water and electricity.

While the mood at the hotel was fearful, much of the city was celebrating.

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Bristling with mounted weapons and flying the pre-Gaddhafi Libyan flag, vehicles manned by cheering rebel fighters poured through the streets of business and residential parts of town.

They were cheered on by residents who had endured 42 years of one-man rule. As was the case when rebels overran cities such as Zawiya and Misrata, those who supported the regime -- if they aren't still fighting on its behalf in scattered pockets of resistance -- have either left the city or are keeping quiet.

The momentum that had gathered in favor of the rebels over the weekend cascaded into the city overnight.

Early Monday morning, armed men, some of whom said they had just joined in the rebellion, massed in Green Square in the middle of the city in celebration. In practically the same breath, rebels who exclaimed "Gadhafi's finished" acknowledged that bloody fighting still lay ahead.

"At the moment, we're not fully (in) control of Tripoli," said one young fighter, who described himself as a resident of the city who had fled and was returning to take part in a momentous battle.

"It's a historic day, because we had to leave from here ... without anything, and now we have to fight. I'm not fighter, I'm student, and this is my first time to, like, handle a gun."

Amid celebratory shooting and shouting, witnesses said, loyalist snipers began firing from rooftops, though there was no direct evidence of it.

People in the streets ran for cover, and the gunfire intensified.

Civilians and reporters were warned that a "massive battle" was about to take place and were told to leave the area.

Rebel forces pulled back and regrouped about a half-mile from the square to coordinate an unspecified action.

From that fallback position, loud explosions, possibly artillery fire, could be heard not far away, but it wasn't clear whether the explosions were coming from Green Square.

In the early afternoon, a large component of the rebel forces streamed through the area en route to engage Gadhafi's troops at an undisclosed location.

The rebels said they intend to give Green Square the name it had before Gadhafi came to power in 1969 -- Martyrs Square.

The regime had loosening its grip on foreign reporters earlier in the day, when staff and government minders melted away from Rixos hotel. Journalists were no longer being shadowed by armed minders, as the focus appeared to shift to defensive preparations.

But the situation remained fluid throughout the day, and the fighting across the street intensified into a full-pitched battle by evening.

Also, Hala Al Misrati, the well-known state TV news host who brandished a pistol on air and threatened to kill anyone who sought to overrun the station, was apprehended by rebels Monday outside a café as she sat in a car with her brother.

Witnesses said a rebel soldier entered the car and told them both that they were under arrest. Immediately after, they were taken away into a nearby building.

Witnesses said Al Misrati was unharmed but would not be speaking to media. A cordon of soldiers quickly formed to sequester her from media representatives and an angry gathering of onlookers who decried her as a mouthpiece for Gaddhafi.

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