Moammar Gadhafi proved true to his word to remain in Libya and “die as a martyr,” though his final hours were an ignominious end for a man who long ruled from a fortress-like compound in the heart of Tripoli.
His last moments were reportedly spent holed up in a culvert under a road in his hometown of Sirte as loyalist forces waged a losing battle to keep control of the city.
Exactly how Gadhafi died and how he wound up in Sirte remained as much a mystery Thursday as his whereabouts since Tripoli fell. Intense speculation, rumor and possible disinformation have swirled for months.
As Libya’s popular uprising exploded into a veritable civil war, Gadhafi remained in his Bab al-Azizya command-and-control center in Tripoli. “I am not going to leave this land. I will die here as a martyr,” he vowed in a televised address on Feb. 22. He continued to make such broadcasts until weeks before his death.
But when the capital fell on Aug. 22, Gadhafi and his trusted eldest sons disappeared. The rebels initially declared that his son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, had been captured, but the reports turned out to be false. Another son, Muhammad, vanished after escaping from rebel custody.
A week later, Gadhafi’s wife and three children fled to the relative safety of neighboring Algeria.
But no one seemed to have a clear answer to where the former Libyan leader himself might be found.
“‘Where is Gadhafi?’ was a staple question at every press conference I attended while in Libya,” says Sean Carberry, a producer for NPR.
The transitional government might say one day that the former strongman was believed to be in the sparsely populated desert south of the country, and the next day that he was definitely in Sirte, Carberry says.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s Transitional National Council said Aug. 27, less than a week after Gadhafi’s ouster, that his government had “no factual report about the whereabouts of Gadhafi and his sons.”
With the fall of Tripoli, however, the noose around Gadhafi was closing. If he was still in the country, as he and his advisors claimed, there were few places to hide. He is believed to have spent at least a few days in Bani Walid, a loyalist redoubt, sometime near the end of August. And there were rumors that put him variously in Sirte and in a loyalist stronghold in the country’s dusty interior.
Carberry says the confusion over Gadhafi was not surprising.
Officials of Transitional National Council “would often speak their opinions to the press, and they didn’t always have clear facts or attributions to back up their statements,” he says.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi loyalists were playing their own cat-and-mouse game about the ousted strongman’s movements.
One persistent report placed Gadhafi in or around the town of Sabha, the interior loyalist bastion, where he was purportedly protected by Tuareg tribesman, says NPR’s Corey Flintoff, who spent time in Libya reporting on the conflict.
“It may well be that even most loyalists didn’t know where Gadhafi was,” he says. The report that Gadhafi was with the Tuareg, who inhabit parts of southwestern Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger, “may have been disinformation, but many of his own people seemed to believe it.”
The rumor lent credence to reports in early September that a convoy of regime loyalists had fled to neighboring Niger. Some of the reports suggested Gadhafi was in the convoy, while others said he wasn’t.
Morale among loyalist forces withered at the idea that their leader had turned tail. In an apparent attempt at damage control, Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told Syrian-based Arrai TV that his boss was “in very high spirits” and was inside Libya “in a place that will not be reached by those factious groups.”
Days later, the Syrian channel broadcast an audio message purporting to be from Gadhafi himself in which the leader denounced the rumors that he had fled.
“They are trying to demoralize you,” the voice said. “Gadhafi won’t leave the land of his ancestors,” he said of himself in third person, a rhetorical habit of the former leader.
As recently as last week, the rumor mill on the Gadhafi clan was still spinning. On Oct. 12, as the battle for control of Sirte raged, Libya’s new government claimed that Gadhafi’s son Muatassim had been captured. That was soon contradicted.
Five days later, Libyan commander Omar Abu Lifa, said fierce resistance in one neighborhood in Sirte was evidence that Muatassim was holed up there. After the city fell Thursday, The Associated Press reported that Muatassim had died on the same day as his father.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi is said to have been wounded and caught during the fighting and then hospitalized. If he lives, he might be the only one left to answer for the regime’s crimes — and shed light on the many questions about where Moammar Gadhafi spent his final months and days.
“Given the extensive network of tunnels and underground shelters that was found in his compound in Tripoli, it now seems entirely possible that [Moammar] Gadhafi may have had some similar set-up in Sirte,” says NPR’s Flintoff.
“If that was the case, he could have been hiding there with very few people knowing about it.”
With reporting from NPR’s Sean Carberry in Baghdad, Iraq, and Corey Flintoff in Delhi, India. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.