Mystery: Where is Muammar Gaddafi?


gaddafiIt was perhaps only fitting that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi would be as unpredictable on the lam as he was in power for 42 eccentric years.

In Green Square, now renamed Martyrs’ Square, youths cleaning the asphalt predicted he was under their feet. In Bab al-Aziziya, once Colonel Qaddafi’s bastion of power here, residents carting away his possessions suggested neighboring Algeria, his hometown of Surt or some faraway locale in the desert, an environment in which Colonel Qaddafi long claimed to feel most at home. Fighters firing volley after celebratory volley just shrugged.

“It’s the biggest question – where is Qaddafi – and nobody knows,” said Suleiman Abu Milyana, a fighter from the Nafusah Mountains in the west. “He has a particular mind and many personalities. If he had one, you could guess, but he has three or four, so no one can know.”

As his capital fell last week, Colonel Qaddafi and his family evaporated (though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held). Even the adopted daughter he claimed was killed in an American air strike in 1986 – wrongly, it now seems – disappeared from the city of two million, leaving behind her empty office at a Tripoli hospital. Since then, he has released a few brief audio messages, with vintage insults four decades in the making. In one, he called on countrymen to cleanse his capital of rats, traitors and infidels. “Let the masses crawl from every place toward Tripoli,” he declared in the other.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” he cried.

On Sunday, Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists even offered to negotiate, a proposal that Mahmoud Shammam, the information minister in the transitional government, dismissed as “a daydream.”

“We are going to arrest them very soon,” he said, though that has become the refrain of bad predictions the past week as the rebels consolidate their control here.

“We really don’t know where he is right now,” acknowledged one senior American counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in Washington.

British and French special operations troops, aided by American reconnaissance imagery and intercepts, as well as operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency, have helped rebels search for Colonel Qaddafi throughout the capital, American officials say.

“We have no reason to believe Qaddafi has left Tripoli,” one American military officer said, noting that the Libyan leader likely had a series of tunnels and safe houses, supported by a network of trusted aides, that he could use to evade his pursuers. But other American officials said he could have slipped out of the capital to towns in the east, and the speculation – in Tripoli and elsewhere – is that he somehow made his way to Algeria, the only neighboring country that has yet to recognize or support the rebel leadership.

In reality, the rebel leadership seems more overwhelmed with the task at hand, bringing back running water, electricity and medical supplies to the capital, as well as doing something about the hundreds of fighters roaming streets with the prestige that a brand-new assault rifle brings. While they acknowledge his capture might end resistance in places like Surt, on the coast, and Sabha, to the south, they say they have already accomplished the greatest challenge: ending the reign of the Arab world’s longest-ruling leader. “I don’t care about him, he’s gone,” said Mazigh Buzakhar, a 29-year-old activist. “He’s been gone since the 17th of February,” he said, citing the date the revolt began. “He lost his legitimacy and he has nothing left. He means nothing to Libya or Libyans.”

But in less guarded moments, some acknowledge the shadow Colonel Qaddafi can still cast in a country where two-thirds of Libyans have known no other leader.

“It’s the same effect as when you’re trying to get a comfortable night of sleep and there’s an annoying mosquito buzzing around the room,” said Aref Nayed, who heads the rebel leadership’s Stabilization Committee. “I’m absolutely convinced that he’s finished but it is a nuisance.”

The comparisons with Saddam Hussein are inescapable. Like Colonel Qaddafi, the Iraqi dictator fled with his sons as his capital fell in 2003. He evaded capture for seven months, moving around a series of safe houses and subterranean hide-outs. American troops carried out more than a dozen raids trying to capture him before a close associate finally gave him up.

“Qaddafi’s like a mouse scurrying along the ground,” said Mohammed Zarzah, a 25-year-old fighter celebrating at Bab al-Aziziya, where, every day since the compound was overrun Thursday, crowds of the curious and the jubilant have gathered at a shrine Colonel Qaddafi built over the target of the 1986 American airstrike. “He called us a rat, and now it turns out that he’s the rat.”

Through the morning on Sunday, people carted away souvenirs from the compound, including a Hello Kitty blanket and plates emblazoned with scenes of an older Tripoli. Strewn about were portraits of Colonel Qaddafi – with Fidel Castro; Yasir Arafat; Nelson Mandela; and Hosni Mubarak, the jailed former president of Egypt. One picture captured his son Seif al-Arab, after his circumcision. Another showed him playing soccer with a grandson. “You should burn each one of those!” one man shouted.

Some visitors peered through doors charred by airstrikes, as if breaching the forbidden.

“If you ask me, he’s staying right here, in our midst,” said Zuheir al-Arabi, a former employee at Libya’s state television. “He can’t live somewhere tight, he can’t live underground. He has to live somewhere big – and here’s the evidence for that right here.”

His hands black, he rummaged through Colonel Qaddafi’s belongings, landing on a jar of dried herbs that he insisted the Libyan leader has relied on to cast magic spells. “He still has a surprise for us,” Mr. Arabi said.

A spokesman for the rebel military said Sunday that one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Khamis, the head of a feared brigade, may have been killed at a roadblock.

“One thing I know is they’re definitely not together,” said Ahmed Gharib, who joined friends sweeping Martyrs’ Square, as fighters and residents careened around it in cars, honking horns. “Everyone is trying to save himself on his own, just like before – in Tripoli, Surt and Sabha.” He tapped the ground with his broom. “And one underground.”

“Long live a free Libya,” graffiti read along a wall. A man stood on the curb. “Forward! Forward! Forward!” he cried, riffing on Colonel Qaddafi’s trademark chant. Mr. Gharib watched the scene unfold, the offered a line heard often these days. “Every tyrant has his end,” he said.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


  1. Maybe they cant find him because they have him confused with Mohmar Gadhafi, Muamar Khadaffi, Moamar Gaddaffi, Moahmar Quaddafi, etc..etc…etc. This guy must get notices for jury duty like crazy….


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