In the end the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator who had seemed to slip from the grasp of the rebels who forced him out of power, was as undignified and brutal as those of so many of his enemies over the years.
After the stunning rumours yesterday spiralled into the news that he had been killed, video footage surfaced that showed him being dragged, bloodied but alive, from a truck and into a murderous throng. He did not emerge. Later footage showed his lifeless body in a pool of blood on the pavement, apparently with a bullet hole in the temple.
A senior Libyan official said DNA tests were being carried out to confirm the body was his. The National Transitional Council later issued a statement saying the ex-dictator had not been executed but had perished in crossfire. If Gaddafi died like a dog in a gutter, most in Libya were not grieving. "We confirm that all the evils, plus Gaddafi, have vanished from this beloved country," the Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, declared in Tripoli, attempting to put a lid on the uncertainty surrounding the news that had already been rumoured so many times before. "It's time to start a new Libya, a united Libya," Mr Jibril added. "One people, one future."
The sense of a transformative day was augmented by the news that Gaddafi's Defence Minister, Abu Bakr Yunis, had also been killed, and claims of the death of the dictator's son Mo'tassim. Another son, Saif al-Islam – once the regime's most visible face of defiance and his father's heir – was also rumoured to be dead, though there were other claims he had been captured or cornered. Although many competing narratives emerged, it was at least possible to say last night that the chain of events leading to his death began when Western intelligence intercepted communications that suggested he was in Sirte. Defence sources yesterday told The Independent that NTC fighters had focused all their energies on penetrating the stronghold after they were informed of the communications between commanders of the remnants of the regime forces.
Most versions of events agreed that Gaddafi and his supporters attempted to flee the city in an 80-vehicle convoy in the early morning but were hit by Nato air strikes carried out by French warplanes at around 8.30am local time. A US surveillance drone is also reported to have fired a missile at the convoy. Fifteen pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns were destroyed in the strike, leaving some 50 bodies strewn across the grass where they were hit.
Gaddafi fled into a copse of trees and hid with bodyguards in a concrete culvert under a nearby highway. A group of fighters gave chase.
"At first we fired at them with anti-aircraft guns, but it was no use," said Salem Bakeer, while being feted by his comrades near the road. "Then we went in on foot. 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'," Bakeer said.
The former Libyan leader was then dragged out and placed on to the truck from which he would later be dragged. Western officials insist that the Nato missions, which included RAF reconnaissance aircraft, were not directly responsible for the death of the former dictator. But the decision to carry out the air strikes on the fleeing convoy was the result of a change in policy by Nato in response to the intercepted communications.
Previously the Western forces had avoided such attacks because such targets were seen as posing no immediate threat. According to some NTC sources, it was some of Gaddafi's bodyguards, cornered and threatened with execution, who revealed his whereabouts.
In Brussels, Nato hinted that the death of Gaddafi could signal the beginning of a winding-down of the international military operation in the skies over Libya. One official suggested that a "phasing-out" of operations could begin in the coming weeks. The official said: "Today's events will prompt the military chain of command to make a new assessment... If the decision is to end operations, it will be done through a gradual phasing-out. Military operations are very rarely terminated. One takes the time to be absolutely sure the fire is out."
When questioned on the role British forces will play in Libya now that Gaddafi has been killed, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have to let the dust settle and see what happens with any remaining Gaddafi loyalists. Our part in Nato operations will continue until they are no longer required."
The final spasms of the violence in Sirte were relayed to a stunned nation and to rapt television viewers around the world. Mobile phone video footage was played on news channels globally, apparently taken by a rebel fighter, showing the bloodied and stripped corpse of Gaddafi being tumbled in a sheet. He was 69 years old and had ruled for 42 years. While euphoria exploded on the streets of Tripoli and other Libyan cities, David Cameron said it was a day to remember all of Gaddafi's victims, a reference to the Libyan people and to the victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988.
He added: "People in Libya today have an even greater chance after this news of building themselves a strong and democratic future."
The elimination of Gaddafi also meant a pre-election boost for President Barack Obama after a long summer with scant sign that the rebels would prevail. Speaking at the White House last night, he said that a dark shadow had been lifted. "This is a momentous day in the history of Libya," he said, before addressing the country's people directly with the words: "You have won your revolution."
News of Gaddafi's grisly end brought instant joy to families of the Pan Am victims. "I hope he's in hell with Hitler," said Kathy Tedeschi, who lost her husband, Bill Daniels, in the bombing. "I saw it on the TV... I just can't stop crying, I am so thrilled," said Mrs Tedeschi, 62, who had three children with Mr Daniels. "I am sure [Gaddafi] was the one who pushed to have this done, the bombing."
Amnesty International, on the other hand, called for an inquiry into the manner of Gaddafi's death.
The death of Gaddafi and the end of hostilities in Sirte mean Libya's interim government can declare the country fully liberated and start preparations for elections. "It's a great victory for us," said NTC military spokesman Abdul Rahman Busin. "Sirte has officially fallen, which means the liberation of Libya can be announced in the next 24 to 48 hours." Mr Busin said it was unlikely pro-Gaddafi fighters would continue to resist. "They were fighting for him [Gaddafi]. There's no reason for them to fight any more," he said.
In quotes world response...
"Our people have paid a high price. It is not important whether Gaddafi faces trial or whether he's alive or dead"
Mahmoud al-Naku, Libyan charge d'affairs in London
"All the evils, plus Gaddafi, have vanished from this beloved country. It's for the Libyans to realise that it's time to start a new Libya, a united Libya, one people, one future"
Mahmoud Jibril, Prime Minister of Libya
"I am totally overwhelmed. There are grown men in my office who are crying at this news. Today marks the start of a new Libya"
Moez, a resident of Tripoli
"Today is a day to remember all of Gaddafi's victims, from those who died in connection with the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie, to Yvonne Fletcher in a London street, and ... all the victims of IRA terrorism who died through their use of Libyan Semtex"
"God will punish him. We have seen 42 years of hell, so it's all an improvement from here"
Hadil, a student in Tripoli
"Combatants on all sides must lay down their arms in peace. This is the time for healing and rebuilding... not for revenge"
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General
"I hope he's in hell with Hitler"
Kathy Tedeschi, whose husband died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing
"There is much still to be resolved about [the Lockerbie bombing] issue and Gaddafi. Now that he is dead we may have lost an opportunity for getting nearer to the truth"
Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter, Flora, died at Lockerbie