BENGHAZI, Libya - The long 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'd ruled by fear for more than four decades, Libyan officials and NATO said.
With NATO bombings paving the way, rebel forces entered Tripoli with surprising ease and by early Monday controlled much of the city. Gadhafi's personal guard surrendered to rebel forces, and television showed crowds of opposition fighters in Tripoli unfurling the tricolor flag of pre-Gadhafi Libya and smashing the ruler's portraits.
"This is historic," Amal Abdelrazk,, 41, a resident of downtown Tripoli's Andalus Street, said by phone. "After 41 years, eight months and 27 days, we witness this moment. ... "The whole thing is like a dream."
Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told McClatchy that his forces were looking for 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."
"All the tribes, you must all march to Tripoli in order to defend and purify it," he said, calling the rebels agents of Western powers. "Otherwise you will have no dignity; you will become slaves and servants in the hands of the imperialists."
But the mercurial leader was nowhere to be seen, and for many Libyans, the regime's death blow came with the rebels' arrest of Seif al-Islam, Gadhafi's powerful son and one-time heir apparent, who had vowed after the uprising against his father began that the regime would fight its opponents "until the last bullet."
The rebels' Transitional National Council in the eastern city of Benghazi confirmed Seif al-Islam's arrest. Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, told CNN that he would begin talks with the rebels Monday on transferring him to the custody of the court, which issued a warrant for his arrest in June on charges of crimes against humanity.
President Barack Obama, asked about the situation while he was vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., said, "We're going to wait until we have full confirmation of what has happened. ... I'll make a statement when I do."
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. Celebratory gunfire echoed as Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of the Transitional National Council, announced Seif al-Islam's capture shortly before midnight.
"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."