Libyans celebrate after Gaddafi hunted down
Despot's 42-year reign of terror comes to an end as Sirte falls to rebels
Published 21/10/2011 | 05:00
He had often referred to his enemies as "vermin" as he vowed to hunt them down alley by alley or die trying.
But, in the end, it was Muammar Gaddafi who was hiding like "a rat" when he was finally cornered in a drain, clutching a gold-plated pistol and pleading in vain for his life.
After 42 years as Libya's despotic leader, Gaddafi was killed in a field two miles west of his birthplace, after taking shelter in a culvert from rebel fighters and Nato bombs.
His final refuge could not have been more different from the palaces and villas where he had squandered his nation's oil wealth.
The concrete drain pipe where they found him was 70ft long and no more than 3ft in diameter, running underneath a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Sirte.
Sand, rocks and discarded water bottles lined the interior, which opened next to a clutch of empty sheep pens.
Three bodies of his companions lay outside the drain. They did not look like elite bodyguards or members of an inner circle as their gaunt bodies began to quickly gather flies in the afternoon heat.
But then mobile phone footage of Gaddafi's capture showed that the 69-year-old no longer bore any resemblance to a self-styled "king of kings" with grandiose visions of creating a United States of Africa.
The shaky images of his final moments show him bloodied and unkempt and surrounded by jubilant rebels holding weapons to his head.
His trademark mop of frizzy black hair was matted and thin and his robes were stained red from a wound.
More than anything, the footage showed him weak and confused.
"When we had him and we surrounded him, he was talking like an idiot," said 20-year-old Mohammad Elhweje, who was one of 10 fighters from a Misrata brigade who captured him.
"He was saying, 'What's going on, what did I do?' No one could believe it."
Gaddafi's death brought to an end the bloody eight-month battle to liberate Libya from his iron grip.
Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the interim National Transitional Council, said: "We have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Muammar Gaddafi has been killed.
"All the evils have vanished from this beloved country. It's time to start a new Libya, a united Libya, one people, one future."
Between 17 and 20 of Gaddafi's most senior supporters were also killed or captured alongside him. The leader of his armed forces, Abu Bakr Younus, and his son Mutassim were killed, while Ahmed Ibrahim, a cousin and adviser of Gaddafi, and his official spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, were captured.
Hours later, Gaddafi's chosen heir, Saif al-Islam, was surrounded and captured near Sirte as he made his own bid for freedom.
Gaddafi's final hours began with a dramatic attempt to break out of the city which had been pounded by rebel fighters for two weeks.
Loyalists had been staunchly defending District Two, an area in the north west of the city, feeding speculation among the besieging rebels that a series of high-ranking members of the regime were hidden somewhere in Sirte.
As the circle closed, they tried to make a desperate dash for freedom soon after dawn yesterday.
Fighters who witnessed what happened said it began at 7.30am when a column of 15 to 20 cars tried to punch out of their pocket of resistance into the western suburb of Zafran.
The break caused confusion among rebels who were preparing to launch an offensive from the same direction.
As fighters prepared for the assault, they witnessed an intense fire fight as rebel positions suddenly found themselves under fire from an unexpected direction.
The convoy managed to evade the rebel front line and drive around two miles west and then, for some reason, parked up close to an electricity sub station.
"Gaddafi and some of his inner circle tried to run away," explained Ali Gadi, a 21-year-old member of the unit that found him.
In the confusion, the convoy had been followed by some rebel fighters from the western front, but they were lightly armed and under-strength.
"They stopped out here. It wasn't clear who was with them and what sort of firepower they had," Mr Gadi said. "We held back for a while to see what they would do."
Unknown to the rebels, the convoy had not escaped the surveillance of Nato.
Just as the rebel brigades were deciding what to do, the convoy was hit by at least one bomb in a Nato airstrike.
The attack caused devastation among the tightly-packed vehicles. In all, there were 14 smouldering cars and pick-up trucks and at least 25 bodies either eviscerated or charred beyond recognition.
Somehow, Gaddafi escaped the carnage, but his situation had become hopeless.
He and a handful of others fled north around 200 yards down the main road and took shelter in the drain.
As members of the al-Watan brigade from Misrata approached the smouldering cars, they had no suspicion their former leader was close by.
"We had no idea Muammar was going to be in there," said Mr Elhweje.
"We thought Mutassim (his son) might have tried to escape. Then Gaddafi came out. One of our guys grabbed him in a bear hug."
Running on foot and with his baggage smouldering in the destroyed vehicles, Gaddafi was not found with many possessions, but those he was carrying were displayed among the fighters as spoils.
One fighter held a gold-plated automatic pistol, which he said he had taken from the deposed leader.
Another brandished a futuristic-looking Belgian-made FN assault rifle.
Rebels swiftly marked the spot where he was captured by spray-painting the words: "This is the place where the rat Gaddafi was hiding," above the drain.
Fighters quickly swarmed from nearby to see the captive with their own eyes.
The prisoner was then bundled into the back of a pick-up truck. Whatever may have happened to him later, rebels and mobile phone footage confirm that at the time he was alive, though wounded.
One film clip showed him staggering on his feet and apparently talking as rebels whooped and shouted: "God is great!"
Gaddafi was driven to a dressing station and field hospital on the main road to Misrata on the west of the city, but the vehicles just pulled up on the side of the road before proceeding to Misrata in a swelling convoy.
Pictures released later in the day showed that at some point he had been shot -- executed, perhaps -- with a bullet to his left temple.
In Tripoli, as the first reports of Gaddafi's demise came through, crowds gathered in the streets, chanting: "God is great, God is great, Gaddafi has been captured." Their jubilant shouts were accompanied by the inevitable gunfire.
NTC spokesman Abdel Majid announced that Gaddafi had been "wounded in both legs". But even as the first questions were being asked about where Gaddafi would go on trial, the NTC made another announcement, saying Gaddafi was dead.
"He was also hit in the head," said Abdel Majid. "There was a lot of firing against his group and he died."
Incredibly, the Gaddafi-supporting TV channel Al-Libiya remained defiant, saying the reports of his death "peddled by the lackeys of Nato" were "baseless" and he remained "in good health".
The world would not have to wait long for photographic evidence to prove otherwise. By 1.45pm, a photograph of a blood-drenched Gaddafi, apparently still alive, had been posted online after being filmed by a rebel fighter on his mobile phone.
In Sirte, it had become clear that resistance inside the devastated centre had finished and the besieging forces swept in.
Everywhere were signs of devastation. The streets were littered with masonry, spent bullet casings and burnt cars.
It was difficult to find a building not riddled with bullet or shell holes. Unexploded mortar round stood half buried in the asphalt.
There were also signs of the resistance which had kept the besieging forces bloodily at bay for the past fortnight.
Lorries had been overturned at key intersections to act as barricades and grain sacks filled with sand had been piled alongside the carcasses of cars in backstreets.
NTC fighters confirmed the battle of Sirte was over by hoisting the red, black and green national flag above a large utilities building in the centre of the district that had held out the longest.
US President Barack Obama said Gaddafi's death had lifted "the dark shadow of tyranny" from Libya but he warned there would be "difficult days ahead" on the road to full democracy.