Gaddafi: Confused and afraid dictator pleaded 'help me'
The blood had been washed off and the faces, eyes shut, were in repose. But the terrible wounds of the last violent moments were left uncovered by the shrouds of white cloth that had been hastily thrown over them. The bodies were on stretchers, Muammar Gaddafi in a temporary military barracks, Mutassim Gaddafi in a container.
These were temporary resting places for the former dictator and his son. After being brought back to Misrata from Sirte, the scene of the killings, the corpses had been moved from place to place -- at one point to the home of a former rebel official and then to a meat warehouse. Officials of the new government said this was to prevent the residents of this city, who had suffered a long and bloody siege at the hands of the regime, from venting their anger on their dead enemies.
But it was as if no one wanted responsibility for disposing of these grisly symbols of the revolution's triumph after such a bitter civil war. Some of the country's rulers talked about handing them over to the Gaddafi tribe for burial. Others were adamant that a shrine should not be created and the best course of action would be a burial at sea.
Looking down at the body of Gaddafi, Firuz al-Maghri, a 55-year-old schoolteacher who had been allowed into the barracks by a friend in the opposition militia, shook his head as he recalled a brother and a cousin who had died in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, a place of fear and despair. "Twelve hundred prisoners were murdered there," he said. "It is difficult for outsiders to understand, but he was responsible for so many lives lost, families who never found out what happened to those who disappeared. We feared him, I was afraid."
Captain Rahim Abu-Bakr, an engineer turned fighter, patted Mr al-Maghri's shoulder.
"It does not matter," he said. "He cannot hurt people any longer."
Gaddafi appeared to have been shot in the head, the bullet wound clearly visible. Mutassim had injuries to his chest and stomach. But exactly what happened when the final reckoning came at Sirte remains unclear.
Libya's new government, the National Transitional Council, has declared that Sunday would be National Liberation Day to commemorate the departure of Gaddafi. But no one really believes the account given by Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister, that Gaddafi was killed when loyalist forces made a last ditch attempt to rescue him.
For many of the rebels at Sirte, it had been another day of frustration in the long battle for Gaddafi's birthplace, with last pockets of loyalist fighters offering obdurate resistance. What was somewhat unusual were prolonged and fierce Nato airstrikes, something which had become less frequent.
There were French warplanes hitting a convoy of vehicles leaving Sirte at high speed. It had become the policy of the Western Alliance not to attack retreating regime soldiers because they did not pose any obvious danger to civilians.
The attacks, however, had taken place after the interception of messages by Western intelligence, suggesting high-level remnants of the regime were on the move. Eleven vehicles were destroyed, and the rest, split into groups. But these, too, were hunted down and a few, including the one carrying Gaddafi, returned to the outskirts of Sirte.
Gaddafi and a handful of his men then abandoned their vehicles and crawled into two drainage pipes. The rebels chased the fugitives, but say they were still unaware of who they were. Then, a little later, a man ran out waving a piece of white rag. "My master is here, he has been injured, it is Muammar Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi," he apparently said.
The soldier, a member of the Leader Guard, was dragged away. Those there at the time describe a sense of astonishment among the rebel fighters when they discovered that the figure emerging out of a ditch with a pistol in hand, but looking cowed, was indeed Gaddafi. "We were so happy when we knew it was him. I thought, 'at last, it's all over,'" said Abdullah Hakim Husseini who had taken part in the brutal investing of Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace, from the start.
Because there had been little expectation of catching Gaddafi, there was no procedure in place for what to do with him. According to Mr Husseini some of the officers tried to call headquarters. But the rebels, an egalitarian bunch with little respect for rank, pushed them aside.
"OK for sure, he was being beaten, kicked, with rifle butts, boots. He looked confused and afraid, he was saying 'help me, help me', but his voice was really strained. A few of us were around him, we thought we should get him somewhere we could question him about the others. But he was then taken away in a wave of people and then there were shots."
Other reports described him being told as he was hit: "This is for Misrata you dog". Gaddafi was said to have replied, "Do you know right from wrong?" "Shut up, you dog," came the response.
That was not part of this group's account. Were they the ones who killed him? "Probably, but I am not sure," shrugged Mr Husseini. Another fighter said quietly: "He was shot in the head, I saw it. It was probably good that happened, he was pretty bad by then." (© Independent News Service)