People celebrate the capture in Tripoli of Muammar Gaddafii's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, at the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya.

peter fabricius and sapa-AP

SOUTH Africa would not recognise a purely rebel government in Libya and would not give asylum to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi under any circumstances, the government said today.

As Libyan rebels entered Tripoli and attacked Gaddafi’s compound, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said South Africa had no idea where Gaddafi was but assumed he was still in the capital.

Nkoana-Mashabane denied rumours that South Africa had sent two military aircraft to evacuate Gaddafi into exile in South Africa or anywhere else. She said South Africa had one military aircraft standing by in Tunisia to fly South African embassy staff back to South Africa. They had been evacuated from Tripoli to Tunisia last week.

She insisted Gaddafi had not asked South Africa for asylum or for transport to asylum anywhere else. She also implied, but refused to confirm explicitly, that South Africa could not give asylum to Gaddafi because it was a member of the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Gaddafi for war crimes.

In Tripoli this morning, government tanks opened fire at rebels trying to storm Gaddafi’s main compound.

Rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Rahman cautioned that pockets of resistance remained and that as long as Gaddafi was still on the run the “danger is still there”.

The clashes broke out at Gaddafi’s command centre known as Bab al-Aziziya early today when government tanks emerged from the complex and opened fire at rebels, according to Abdel-Rahman and a neighbour.

Moammar al-Warfali, who lives next to the compound, said there appeared to be only a few tanks belonging to the Gaddafi forces that had not fled or surrendered.

Nkoana-Mashabane expressed regret at the bloodshed caused by the Nato bombardment of Gaddafi’s forces after South Africa and the AU had asked for it to cease.

“This could have been avoided. Two wrongs don’t make a right,” she said, referring to Gaddafi’s brutal attacks on his own people, and Nato’s bombardment of his forces.

South Africa and the AU maintain that if the Nato bombardment had ended months ago, Gaddafi would have been prepared to negotiate with the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) for an all-inclusive democratic government.

This was in terms of the AU’s road map out of the crisis, which President Jacob Zuma has been trying to implement.

Nkoana-Mashabane insisted the AU road map was still in force, despite the fact that the fighting had continued and Gaddafi’s government had now effectively fallen.

She said South Africa would not recognise the TNC as the government of Libya as the US, France and other Western powers have. “We will not recognise a state within a state,” she said.

South Africa would only recognise a government that included members of the TNC and of Gaddafi’s government.

“With the imminent fall of the government of Colonel Gaddafi, we wish to urge the interim authority in Tripoli to immediately institute an all-inclusive inter-Libyan political dialogue aimed at building a truly representative and people-centred dispensation.”

As spelt out in the AU road map, the way forward should include the drafting of a new constitution under the supervision of the transitional government, and a referendum on the new constitution “leading to democratic elections”.

She said the changes in Libya held “real prospects of ushering in a new era based on the will of the people” and that South Africa stood ready to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Libya..

Nkoana-Mashabane said the AU High Level Committee on Libya, on which Zuma serves, and the AU Peace and Security Council would meet this week to deliberate on the way forward in Libya.

Earlier, state television broadcast bitter audio pleas by Gaddafi for Libyans to defend his regime. Opposition fighters captured his son Saif al-Islam, who along with his father faces charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC. Another son was under house arrest.

But as hundreds of jubilant men and women gathered in Green Square late yesterday, firing shots in the air and waving the rebels’ flag, Gaddafi’s defiance in audio messages raised the possibility of a last-ditch fight over the capital, home to two million people.

He called on his supporters to march in the streets of the capital and “purify it” of “the rats”.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim also claimed the regime had “thousands and thousands of fighters” and vowed: “We will fight. We have whole cities on our side. They are coming en masse to protect Tripoli to join the fight.”

Nato officials promised warplanes would continue regular patrols over Libya despite the latest rebel successes.

Gaddafi’s former right-hand man, who defected last week to Italy, said the long-time leader would not go easily.

“I think it’s impossible that he’ll surrender,” Abdel-Salam Jalloud said in an interview on Italian RAI state radio, adding: “He doesn’t have the courage, like Hitler, to kill himself.”

Jalloud, who was Gaddafi’s closest aide for decades before falling out with the leader in the 1990s, fled Tripoli on Friday, according to rebels.

The startling rebel breakthrough, after a long deadlock in Libya’s six-month-old civil war, was the culmination of a closely co-ordinated plan by rebels, Nato and anti-Gaddafi residents inside Tripoli, rebel leaders said. Rebel fighters from the west swept over 30km in a matter of hours yesterday, taking town after town and overwhelming a major military base as residents poured out to cheer them.

At the same time, Tripoli residents secretly armed by rebels rose up.

When rebels reached the gates of Tripoli, the special battalion entrusted by Gaddafi with guarding the capital promptly surrendered. The reason was that its commander, whose brother had been executed by Gaddafi years ago, was secretly loyal to the rebellion, a senior rebel official, Fathi al-Baja, said.