Libyans rejoiced and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief Thursday at news of the death of ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi, but details of his capture and killing remained in dispute.
His convoy was hit by NATO airstrikes but not destroyed. And he later was captured alive in his hometown of Sirte. However, numerous reports — often contradictory — continue to surface about how he was captured and how he ended up dead, apparently from a bullet to the head.
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A U.S. Predator drone was involved in the airstrike on Muammar Qaddafi’s convoy Thursday in the moments before his death, as he tried to escape Sirte, a U.S. defense official told Fox News.
The official said the drone, along with a French fighter jet, fired on the “large convoy.” A French defense official earlier said about 80 vehicles were in the convoy — the official said the strike did not destroy the convoy but that fighters on the ground afterward intercepted the vehicle carrying Qaddafi. He was later killed, reportedly in the crossfire between Qaddafi supporters and opponents as he was being transferred.
Arab broadcasters showed graphic images of the balding, goateed Gadhafi — wounded, with a bloodied face and shirt — but alive, as he was pushed around by a crowd of revolutionaries. Later video showed fighters rolling Qaddafi’s lifeless body over on the pavement, stripped to the waist and a pool of blood under his head.
Standing, he was shoved along a Sirte road by fighters who chanted “God is great.” Qaddafi appears to struggle against them, stumbling and shouting as the fighters push him onto the hood of a pickup truck.
He was driven around lying on the hood of a truck, according to the video. One fighter is seen holding him down, pressing on his thigh with a pair of shoes in a show of contempt.
“We want him alive. We want him alive,” one man shouted before Qaddafi is dragged away, some fighters pulling his hair, toward an ambulance.
Most accounts agreed Qaddafi had been holed up with heavily armed supporters in the last few buildings held by regime loyalists in the Mediterranean coastal town, where revolutionary fighters have been trying prevail for more than a month.
At one point, a convoy tried to flee and was hit by NATO airstrikes, carried out by French warplanes. France’s Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the 80-vehicle convoy was carrying Qaddafi and was trying to escape the city. The strikes stopped the convoy but did not destroy it, and then revolutionary fighters moved in on Qaddafi.
One fighter who said he was at the battle told AP Television News that the final fight took place at an opulent compound. Adel Busamir said the convoy tried to break out but after being hit, it turned back and re-entered the compound. Several hundred fighters attacked.
“We found him there,” Busamir said of Qaddafi. “We saw them beating him (Qaddafi) and someone shot him with a 9mm pistol … then they took him away.”
Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani in Tripoli told Al-Jazeera TV that a wounded Qaddafi “tried to resist (revolutionary forces) so they took him down.”
Fathi Bashaga, spokesman for the Misrata military council, whose forces were involved in the battle, said fighters encircled the convoy and exchanged fire. In one vehicle, they found Qaddafi, wounded in the neck, and took him to an ambulance. “What do you want?” Qaddafi asked the approaching revolutionaries, Bashaga said, citing witnesses.
Qaddafi bled to death from his wounds a half-hour later, he said. Fighters said he died in the ambulance en route to Misrata, 120 miles from Sirte.
Abdel-Jalil Abdel-Aziz, a doctor who accompanied the body in the ambulance and examined it, said Qaddafi died from two bullet wounds — to the head and chest.
“You can’t imagine my happiness today. I can’t describe my happiness,” he told The Associated Press. “The tyranny is gone. Now the Libyan people can rest.”
The account given by Jibril after a coroner’s investigation said Qaddafi was seized unharmed from a drainage pipe but was then shot in the hand and put in a pickup truck. In ensuing crossfire, Qaddafi was shot in the head, the government account said.
According to an account from Hassan Doua, a commander whose fighters found Qaddafi, the former leader already was wounded in the chest when he was seized near a large drainage pipe, and then was put in the ambulance.
Amnesty International urged the revolutionary fighters to report the full facts of how Qaddafi died, saying all members of the former regime should be treated humanely. The London-based rights group said it was essential to conduct “a full, independent and impartial inquiry to establish the circumstances of Col. Qaddafi’s death.”
After his death, Qaddafi’s body was paraded through the streets of Misrata on top of a vehicle surrounded by a large crowd chanting, “The blood of the martyrs will not go in vain,” according to footage aired on Al-Arabiya television. The fighters who killed Qaddafi are believed to have come from Misrata, a city that suffered a brutal weeks-long siege by Qaddafi’s forces during the eight-month civil war.
Celebratory gunfire and cries of “God is great” rang out across Tripoli. Motorists honked and people hugged each other. In Sirte, the ecstatic former rebels celebrated the city’s fall after weeks of fighting by firing endless rounds into the sky, pumping their guns, knives and even a meat cleaver in the air and singing the national anthem.
“We would have wanted him alive for trial. But personally, I think it is better he died,” Bashaga said.
The capture of Sirte, the death of Qaddafi, and the death and capture of his two most powerful sons, gives the transitional leaders confidence to declare the entire country “liberated.”
It rules out a scenario some had feared — that Qaddafi might flee deep into Libya’s southern deserts and lead a resistance campaign.
Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam told AP that Muatassim Qaddafi was killed in Sirte. Abdel-Aziz, the doctor who accompanied Qaddafi’s body in the ambulance, said Muatassim was shot in the chest.
The justice minister said Qaddafi’s son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, had been wounded in the leg and was being held in a hospital in the city of Zlitan, northwest of Sirte. Shammam said Seif was captured in Sirte.
Following the fall of Tripoli on Aug. 21, Qaddafi loyalists mounted fierce resistance in several areas, including Sirte, preventing Libya’s new leaders from declaring full victory. Earlier this week, revolutionary fighters gained control of one stronghold, Bani Walid.
By Tuesday, fighters said they had squeezed Qaddafi’s forces in Sirte into a residential area of about 700 square yards but were still coming under heavy fire from surrounding buildings.
In an illustration of how heavy the fighting has been, it took the anti-Qaddafi fighters two days to capture a single residential building.
Reporters watched as the final assault began around 8 a.m. Thursday and ended about 90 minutes later. Just before the battle, about five carloads of Qaddafi loyalists tried to flee the enclave down the coastal highway that leads out of the city. But they were met by gunfire from the revolutionaries, who killed at least 20 of them.
Col. Roland Lavoie, spokesman for NATO’s operational headquarters in Naples, Italy, said the alliance’s aircraft struck two vehicles of pro-Qaddafi forces “which were part of a larger group maneuvering in the vicinity of Sirte.”
After the battle, revolutionaries began searching homes and buildings looking for any hiding Qaddafi fighters. At least 16 were captured, along with cases of ammunition and trucks loaded with weapons. Reporters saw revolutionaries beating captured Qaddafi men in the back of trucks and officers intervening to stop them.
The fighters looking like the same ragtag force that started the uprising jumped up and down with joy and flashed V-for-victory signs. Some burned the green Qaddafi flag, then stepped on it with their boots.
They chanted “God is great” while one fighter climbed a traffic light pole to unfurl the revolution’s flag, which he first kissed. Discarded military uniforms of Qaddafi’s fighters littered the streets. One revolutionary fighter waved a silver trophy in the air while another held up a box of firecrackers, then set them off.
“Our forces control the last neighborhood in Sirte,” Hassan Draoua, a member of Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, told the AP in Tripoli. “The city has been liberated.”
President Barack Obama said Qaddafi’s death marked the end of a “long and painful chapter” for the people of Libya.
“You have won your revolution,” Obama said during an afternoon briefing in Washington, adding that the U.S. and its allies stopped Qaddafi’s “forces in their tracks.”
Britain’s jets and helicopters backed the rebels during the NATO campaign, and the government on Thursday promised assistance to Libya’s new leaders.
“Today is a day to remember all of Qaddafi’s victims,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said, referring to those in Libya and also the 270 people — mainly British and American — killed in the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The only person charged in the bombing, former Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was freed from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 because of illness. He remains alive and in Libya.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said Qaddafi’s death marks “the promise of a new” Libya.
“The United States demonstrated clear-eyed leadership, patience, and foresight by pushing the international community into action after Qaddafi promised a massacre,” the Massachusetts senator said in a statement. “Though the Administration was criticized both for moving too quickly and for not moving quickly enough, it is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Qaddafi’s undoing without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality. This is a victory for multilateralism and successful coalition-building in defiance of those who derided NATO and predicted a very different outcome.”