NATO steps up its search as rebels capture three sons
Published 23/08/2011 | 05:00
The hunt for Col Muammar Gaddafi was under way last night amid fears he was preparing to flee overseas.
With his 42-year regime in tatters and three of his sons detained by the rebels, the dictator's whereabouts remained unknown.
In his final hours in charge, an increasingly desperate Gaddafi took to the airwaves, telling his supporters: "I am in Tripoli. Go out. I am with you until the end."
But the audio broadcast was not accompanied by pictures, intensifying speculation that he had already fled the capital and was attempting to seek exile in a sympathetic country.
The 69-year-old dictator has not been seen in public since May and his last television appearance was more than two months ago.
Nato intelligence operatives were last night using the "full array" of surveillance equipment available in attempts to track down Gaddafi, with a large number of RAF and other Nato reconnaissance aircraft over Libya looking for leaders of the regime.
All civilian flights are being tracked in case Gaddafi tries to flee by air and US Rivet Joint spy aircraft are monitoring all communications by mobile or satellite phone.
Intelligence sources admitted, however, that Gaddafi had been "extremely clever" in avoiding using telephones.
In addition, RAF Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft will use their sophisticated Astor radar to track vehicle convoys heading into the desert.
In a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, ministers asked for the military to "utilise all ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) assets" to find Gaddafi.
"We don't know when we might find him but he can rest assured, every eye we have is looking for him," said a Whitehall source.
Pentagon officials believe Gaddafi is in Libya, but the feeling among the rebels is that he has already left Tripoli.
With an International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest and few allies in the world, Gaddafi's options for exile are limited.
Any nation that is signatory to the court is duty bound to hand him over to the authorities at The Hague.
However, sources say that despite official denials, South Africa has agreed to play a role in negotiating Gaddafi's exit strategy from Libya.
Not only is it one of most influential countries in the African Union, but President Jacob Zuma was appointed its chief mediator in the crisis and has visited Gaddafi twice since hostilities began in February.
A South African air force plane was on standby in Tunisia and, according to sources, the government is prepared to facilitate Gaddafi's safe passage out of the region if he decides to flee.
"We are not going to walk away from this," said the source. "It's larger than the question of Gaddafi the person. It's a question of the unity of the Libyans and the maximum chance being created for that process to happen."
The union is expected to meet to later this week.
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa's foreign minister, rejected any suggestion South Africa, which is a signatory to the international court, might be a venue for Gaddafi in exile.
Venezuela has been touted as a destination because its socialist president, Hugo Chavez, is a long-time friend of Gaddafi.
In February, William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, claimed he had learnt Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela following the fall of Benghazi. Hours later, Mr Hague was embarrassed when the Libyan leader appeared on television telling his supporters: "I want to show that I'm in Tripoli and not in Venezuela."
If Gaddafi has left Tripoli, one of the most likely places for him to head would be the western city of Sirte, where he was born and still enjoys widespread support. (© Daily Telegraph, London)