TRIPOLI - Two loyalists of Libya's interim government were handed Muammar Gaddafi's body to bury secretly deep in the Sahara desert on Tuesday after a cleric prayed over his decomposing corpse, a Libyan official said.
With their Western allies uneasy that Gaddafi was roughed up and shot after his capture on Thursday, NTC forces had put his body on show in a cold store while they argued over what to do with it until its decay forced them to shut the doors on Monday.
"The process leading to his burial is taking place now," NTC official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters by telephone. "Only two trusted people were assigned to this secret mission. These are not guards, but very trusted NTC people."
Other NTC officials said Gaddafi had already been buried, but Mlegta said the reports were premature. "Trust me, it takes time, and the burial will take place far from the media."
Final Muslim prayers were said over the bodies of the former leader and his son Mo'tassim by Gaddafi's personal cleric Khaled Tantoush, who was arrested with him, before they were removed from the Misrata compound where they had been on display.
The rites were also attended by two of Gaddafi's cousins, Mansour Dhao Ibrahim, once leader of the feared People's Guard, and Ahmed Ibrahim, who were both captured with Gaddafi after their convoy was attacked in a NATO air strike near Sirte, Gaddafi's home town, just after it had fallen.
"The NTC officials were handed the body after the sheikh completed the early morning ceremony and are taking him somewhere very far away into the desert," Mlegta said.
The killing of the 69-year-old in Sirte ended eight months of war, finally ending a nervous two-month hiatus since the NTC's motley forces overran the capital Tripoli.
But it also threatened to lay bare the regional and tribal rivalries that present the NTC with its biggest challenge.
NTC officials had said negotiations were going on with Gaddafi's tribal kinsmen from Sirte and within the interim leadership over where and how to dispose of the bodies, and on what the Misrata leaders in possession of the corpses might receive in return for cooperation.
"No agreement was reached for his tribe to take him," another NTC official told Reuters.
With the decay of the body forcing the NTC leadership's hand, it appeared to have decided that an anonymous grave would at least ensure the plot did not become a shrine.
An NTC official told Reuters several days ago that there would be only four witnesses to the burial, and all would swear on the Koran never to reveal the location.
NTC fears that Gaddafi's sons might mount an insurgency have been largely allayed by the deaths of two of those who wielded the most power, military commander Khamis and Mo'tassim, the former national security adviser.
Mo'tassim was captured along with his father in Sirte and killed in similarly unclear circumstances. Khamis was killed in fighting earlier in the civil war.
SAIF AL-ISLAM "NEAR BORDER"
An NTC official said Gaddafi's long-time heir-apparent Saif al-Islam was in the remote southern desert and set to flee Libya, with the NTC powerless to stop him.
"He's on the triangle of Niger and Algeria. He's south of Ghat, the Ghat area. He was given a false Libyan passport from the area of Murzuq," the official added.
He said Muammar Gaddafi's former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi who, like Saif al-Islam, is wanted by the International Criminal Court, was involved in the matter.
"The region is very, very difficult to monitor and encircle," the official said. "The region is a desert region and it has ... many, many exit routes."
The death of the fallen strongman allowed the NTC to touch off mass rejoicing by declaring Libya's long-awaited "liberation" on Sunday in Benghazi, the seat of the revolt.
But it also highlighted a lack of central control over disparate armed groups, and the jockeying for power among local commanders as negotiations begin in earnest to form an interim government that can run free elections.
"Leaders from different regions, cities, want to negotiate over everything -- posts in government, budgets for cities, dissolving militias," said one senior NTC official in Tripoli, though he defended this as a healthy expression of freedom.
"Is that not democracy?" he asked. "It would be unusual if they did not (negotiate) after Muammar favoured only a few places for 40 years. There is no reason why it cannot be peaceful."
Until the public was finally denied access to Gaddafi's body on Monday, fighters were still ushering sightseers into the chilled room where the bodies of Gaddafi, his son Mo'tassim and his former army chief lay, their flesh darkening and leaking fluids.
The killings near Sirte, after mobile phone video footage was taken showing the captive Gaddafi being beaten and mocked by fighters apparently from Misrata, are also a matter of controversy -- at least outside Libya. The United Nations human rights arm has joined the Gaddafi family in seeking an inquiry.
NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told a news conference on Monday that the NTC had formed a committee to investigate.
He also indicated that the interim authorities still held to an official line that Gaddafi may have been killed in "crossfire" with his own men, a view many NTC officials themselves seem ready to discount.
"Those who have an interest in killing him before prosecuting him are those who had an active role with him," said Abdel Jalil, who like many of the new leadership held positions of authority under Gaddafi.
Adding to concerns about Libya turning over a new leaf on respect for individuals, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to probe an "apparent mass execution" of 53 people, apparently Gaddafi supporters, whom it found dead, some with their hands bound, at a hotel in Sirte.
Few Libyans seem troubled either about how Gaddafi and his entourage were killed or why their corpses were displayed for so long in what seemed a grim parody of the lying-in-state often reserved for national leaders.
"God made the pharaoh as an example to the others," said Salem Shaka, who was viewing the bodies in Misrata on Monday.
"If he had been a good man, we would have buried him. But he chose this destiny for himself." (Reporting by Taha Zargoun in Sirte, Barry Malone and Jessica Donati in Tripoli, Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor in Misrata, Christian Lowe, Jon Hemming and Andrew Hammond in Tunis, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Samia Nakhoul in Dubai and Matt Falloon in London; Editing by Alistair Lyon; Alastair Macdonald and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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