The hunt for Moammar Gadhafi began in earnest on Tuesday after rebels stormed his massive Tripoli compound and found no sign of him.
As the complex fell, the country’s strongman told a Russian official by phone that he was in Tripoli and would stay there to fight on.
And Gadhafi’s son Said al-Islam told journalists on Monday night that his father was still in the capital on the Mediterranean coast.
But after not being found in his 2.3 square mile Bab al-Aziziiya compound, speculation grew that the dictator had managed to slip out of Tripoli into the country’s vast desert hinterland.
The rebels were ecstatic that they had captured the compound in the southern suburbs of the city. They came out with Gadhafi-signed documents as proof that the base was in their hands. Civilians later joined the fighters and drove off in looted cars.
Now Gadhafi’s options are limited. Though he has vowed to fight to the death, the collapse of his regime around him makes that less likely.
The rebels gave him 72 hours to leave the country back in March, saying that they would not prosecute him if he stopped the bombardment and fled.
But after five months of fighting, they are in no mood to forgive him, so he has little choice but to run and hide, says Middle East expert Jane Kinninmont.
“It’s possible he could choose to stay and hide in Libya but there are, of course, scenarios that wouldn’t be that appealing to him, like the Saddam Hussein scenario where he hides for a long time but is eventually caught," Kinninmont, the senior research fellow in Middle East and North African affairs at London’s Chatham House, told Voice of America.
"Or the Hosni Mubarak scenario, where he decided not to leave Egypt, probably thought he would be shielded by the army but ended up going on trial.”
Gadhafi’s other option would be to leave Libya for a friendly country. Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Russia, and Equatorial Guinea have all been identified as possible destinations.
The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi in June, along with his son Seif and Abdulla al-Senussi, the head of Libya’s military intelligence, so rebel forces would be under an international obligation to hand him over to The Hague if they captured him alive.
The dragnet to find the missing despot will have to be widened to areas other than Tripoli, despite claims that he is still there. Seif, who appeared in public last night after being reported captured, told CNN’s Matthew Chance that the dictator was in Tripoli. Seif also said the rebels were being “lured into a massive trap.”
And Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation, who was pictured playing a game with Gadhafi in June, told The Associated Press that he had spoken to the Libyan leader, who told him he was still in the capital and “will fight to the end.”
Ilyumzhinov said Gadhafi’s son Muhammad called him on Tuesday afternoon and then handed the phone to his father, who told the Russian official, “I am alive and healthy, I am in Tripoli and do not intend to leave Libya. Do not believe the lying reports by Western television companies.”
The fall of Bab al-Aziziiya went remarkably smoothly for the rebels, who reported no significant resistance. It appeared to have been aided by NATO jets, which were said to have strafed the complex, destroying watchtowers and hitting walls and giving much-needed cover to the rebel forces on the ground.
The alliance refused to confirm those report,s although military spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie described the compound as a “legitimate target.” under Operation Unified Protector.
Thick black smoke billowed out of the complex as street-by-street fighting broke out in other areas of the capital. Artillery fire was heard throughout the city, with the airport and the Rixos hotel, where many western journalists were trapped by forces loyal to Gadhafi, the scenes of the fiercest battles.
Rebels showed off official files that they said they had taken from within Gadhafi’s heavily fortified base as proof that they are in control.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: "For the Gaddafi regime, this is the final chapter — the end is near and events are moving fast.
“What’s clear to everyone is that Gaddafi is history,” she added. “And the sooner he realizes it, the better. The Libyan people should be spared more suffering and bloodshed.”
But she warned, “The remnants of the regime are desperate, they may be trying to fight back here and there, but they are fighting a losing battle."
After months of criticism from all sides about the role of the United States in the fight for the country, the Obama administration was quick to claim credit for the apparent downfall of Gadhafi.
“Six months is not a long time to bring down a 42-year dictatorship,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications told the Los Angeles Times.
“Over time, all the pressure on Gadhafi built up because we were destroying his forces on the ground while denying him ability to replenish them, so he was getting steadily weaker and at the same time the opposition was getting better organized,” Rhodes said.
“The notion that somehow six months represented a dragged-out effort runs counter to the fact that this was a dictator who was entrenched for four decades,” he said. “Frankly, that time proved to be important because it allowed the opposition to get a lot stronger than they were in March.
“In March, they wouldn’t have had the capability that they had today. So it was time well spent.”
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