Muammar Gaddafi dies in city of his birth
Libya's former leader killed by rebels in Sirte in wake of French airstrike, although precise details of his death remain unclear
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was born in Sirte, and when he became the ruler of all Libya, he transformed it from an insignificant fishing village into the country's sprawling second city. On Thursday, after a brutal and ultimately hopeless last stand, it was the place where he died.
For the past three weeks, with Gaddafi's whereabouts still unknown, government fighters had been puzzled by the bitter and determined resistance from loyalist fighters. Trapped in a tiny coastal strip just a few hundred metres wide, they had refused to give up, even when a victory by the forces of Libya's National Transitional Council seemed inevitable.
Here at last was the answer: they had been fighting to the death with their once-great leader in their midst.
The emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, was one of those in Sirte during the final battle. "A very heavy bombardment started at midnight with shelling of the remaining strongholds with Grad rockets that went on until 6am," he told the Guardian. "I went down to the city centre at 9am and went in with the fighters from Benghazi who said the whole city was free.
"I went to the hospital and a fighter arrived with a gold pistol he said he had taken from Gaddafi. He said there had been a fight with a convoy of people trying to flee. Mansour Dhou [Sirte's pro-Gaddafi military commander] was also in the clinic, shot in the stomach. He said they had been trying to flee and were caught in gunfire, which is when he lost consciousness. He confirmed Gaddafi was with him."
While details of the precise circumstances of Gaddafi's death remained confused and contradictory last night, it appears he was trying to flee the city in a convoy of cars when they came under attack from Nato jets. Last night the French claimed responsibilty for the airstrike.
The convoy was then apparently caught in a gun battle with fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government. Possibly wounded in the shootout, Libya's former ruler crawled into a drain; later he was set upon by revolutionary fighters, one of whom beat him with a shoe.
Witnesses said he perished pleading for mercy after being dragged out of a hiding place inside a concrete drain. According to one fighter, the dying Gaddafi demanded: "What have I done to you?"
Abdel-Jalil Abdel-Aziz, a doctor who accompanied Gaddafi's body in an ambulance as it was taken from Sirte, said he died from two shots, to the head and chest. "I can't describe my happiness," he told the Associated Press. "The tyranny is gone. Now the Libyan people can rest.
Amid the swirl of contradictory reports, one thing was clear: Gaddafi's death was a humiliating end for a man once used to surrounding himself with cheering crowds of supporters. Video images that emerged showed him being bundled bloodied on to the back of a pick-up truck, surrounded by fighters waving guns and shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).
At first Gaddafi was apparently able to walk with assistance before being lifted on to the truck's tailgate. A second clip, however, showed him lifeless. In the second sequence, the tunic over one of his shoulders was heavily bloodstained.
Also killed was one of Gaddafi's sons, Mutassim, a military officer who had commanded the defence of Sirte for his father, according to NTC officials. Gaddafi's second son, Saif al-Islam, was also said to have been arrested, although the news could not immediately be confirmed.
After his death, Gaddafi's body was taken accompanied by a huge convoy of celebrating revolutionaries to Misrata, two hours away. In Misrata which itself went through a bitter siege during Libya's eight-month civil war the body was paraded through the streets on a truck, surrounded by crowds chanting, "The blood of the martyrs will not go in vain."
Bouckaert said: "I followed the convoy with the body to Misrata, where it was displayed. I have seen a lot of celebrations in Libya but never one like this."
Across Libya, as the news broke, there were celebrations. "We have been waiting for this moment for a long time," the Libyan prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, told a news conference.
In Tripoli there were volleys of celebratory gunfire as vast crowds waving the red, black and green national flag adopted by the NTC gathered in Martyr's Square once the setting for mass rallies in praise of the "Brother Leader".
Jibril said: "We confirm that all the evils, plus Gaddafi, have vanished from this beloved country. It's time to start a new Libya, a united Libya. One people, one future." A formal declaration of liberation would be made by Friday, he added later.
The death of Gaddafi and the fall of Sirte opens the way to national elections which it had already been announced would take place eight months after "full liberation" had been achieved.
In London, David Cameron hailed Gaddafi's death as a step towards a "strong and democratic future" for the north African country. Speaking in Downing Street after Jibril officially confirmed the death of the dictator, Cameron said he was proud of the role Britain had played in Nato airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians after the uprising against Gaddafi's rule began in February.
Cameron added that it was a time to remember Gaddafi's victims, including the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, who was gunned down in a London street in 1984, the 270 people who died when Pan-Am flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie in 1988, and all those killed by the IRA using Semtex explosives supplied by the Libyan dictator. Nato commanders will meet on Friday to consider ending the coalition's campaign in Libya.
Gaddafi, 69, is the first leader to be killed in the Arab spring, the wave of popular uprisings that swept the Middle East demanding the end of autocratic rulers and greater democracy.
He was one of the world's most mercurial leaders. He seized power in 1969 and dominated Libya with a regime that often seemed run by his whims. But his acts brought international condemnation and isolation to his country.
When the end came for Gaddafi it was not as his son Saif al-Islam once promised, with the regime fighting to "its last bullet". Instead, the man who once styled himself "the king of the kings" of Africa was cornered while attempting to escape with his entourage in a convoy of cars after a final 90-minute assault on the last few loyalist positions in Sirte's District Two.
Last night the charred remains of 15 pickup trucks lay burned out on a roadside where Gaddafi's convoy had attempted to punch through NTC lines. Inside the ruined vehicles sat the charred skeletons; other bodies lay strewn on the grass.
Gaddafi and a handful of his men appear to have escaped death, and hidden in two drainage pipes choked with rubbish.
Government troops gave chase, said Salem Bakeer, a fighter who was on the scene at the last moment. "One of Gaddafi's men came out waving his rifle in the air and shouting surrender, but as soon as he saw my face he started shooting at me," he told Reuters. "Then I think Gaddafi must have told them to stop. 'My master is here, my master is here', he said, 'Muammar Gaddafi is here and he is wounded'," said Bakeer. "We went in and brought Gaddafi out. He was saying 'What's wrong? What's wrong? What's going on?'. Then we took him and put him in the car."
With its fall, the city of Sirte was transformed from a potent image of Gaddafi's rule to the symbol of his gruesome end. Even as Gaddafi's body was being driven away, the drain where he was found was being immortalised in blue aerosol paint. On it, someone wrote: "The hiding place of the vile rat Gaddafi."
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