Tripoli, Libya Beneath the grassy courtyard of Moammar Gadhafi’s private compound, long tunnels connect bunkers, command centers and spiral staircases that lead to a luxurious home filled with Gadhafi family photos.
The electric lights are out and the banks of telephones have gone dead.
When rebels took over the compound Tuesday, they discovered what had long been rumored: An elaborate secret underground network.
Outsiders had never seen the tunnels beneath the Bab al-Aziziya compound. Many Libyans assume that underground passages connect all of Tripoli — which they say explains Gadhafi’s ability to appear for speeches in places where no one saw him arrive. Some guess he fled the city through one of the tunnels as the rebels swept into Tripoli, though because of damage from NATO bombing, it was not possible to determine if the tunnels actually extend outside of Bab al-Aziziya.
After overrunning the compound, long seen as the symbolic heart of Gadhafi’s rule, the rebels set alight his family home, seized huge numbers of weapons and turned the complex into a staging ground for fighting elsewhere in the capital.
They also discovered the underground network beneath it, a web of tunnels whose reach is still unclear.
“There’s a Tripoli above ground and a Tripoli underground,” said rebel fighter Ismail Dola, 26, exploring the tunnels with friends.
But few rebels were surprised that Gadhafi, who ruled for four decades and survived multiple assassination attempts, would have a secret world where he could escape.
“It’s normal that someone like Moammar would do this to protect himself,” said rebel Riad Gneidi, walking curiously through the tunnels with an assault rifle over his shoulder. “Any dictator has to have a way to protect himself and to escape in times like these.”
The Bab al-Aziziya compound had always been a mystery to most Libyans. Though it is one of the city’s largest landmarks, no streets signs indicate where it is. Few ever entered, and many Tripoli residents said they wouldn’t even walk nearby, fearing security guards on the compound’s high green walls would get suspicious and arrest or shoot them.
Four days after the rebels arrived in the capital, Gadhafi’s whereabouts remain a mystery. His spokesman, in a Thursday phone call to the AP, insists he still commands resistance to the rebels — a claim that strains credulity, given the breakdown of the regime’s communications networks after months of NATO bombings. Gadhafi himself has released two audio messages urging his followers to fight “until victory or martyrdom.”