Gaddafi's fatal delay: Libya

The year of revolution: The war was going nowhere – then, suddenly, the dictator was driven from power. In the third part of a series, Kim Sengupta, who reported extensively on the conflict, reflects on the dramatic reversal that changed the country forever

The tanks were rolling down the streets of Benghazi past shattered houses and burning cars. The rebels had been carrying out ambushes out of the alleyways, but they were finally outgunned and exhausted. There was no sign of the promised Western air strikes; the capital of "Free Libya" lay at the mercy of Muammar Gaddafi.

The sense of the crowd around me was one of betrayal and fear. "Don't they care? Don't they know what Gaddafi will do to us, our families?" an elderly man cried, waving his hand in the direction of the regime troops, just a few hundred yards away. "They built up our hopes for this?" Mashala, my fixer, who had several brothers in the resistance, put it more simply. "He will kill us all," he said.

But the bombing did begin, very late, that Saturday, saving Benghazi and altering the course of the war. We saw the effect the next morning, a terrible scene of desolation laid out on a field edged with wild flowers. The regime's forces had been caught; vulnerable; in the open. What lay before us was a ghastly miniature of the carnage on the road to Basra when American and British warplanes bombed Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait.

Colonel Gaddafi had waited too long before making the final push into the heartland of the uprising which had begun more than a month earlier. Fatally, he had been busy concentrating on the enclaves of rebellion nearer to Tripoli, at Misrata and Zawiyah. The time had allowed the opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC) to declare they were in charge of half the country, and gather the international support that would save them.

The regime, realistically, had no chance of a military victory after Nato intervened. The ambiguous terms of the UN resolution 1973, which allowed the establishment of a "no-fly zone" to translate into a fully fledged air campaign, coupled with the failure of Russia and China to use their veto, allowed the First World's most advanced military machine to systematically destroy one from the Third World.

The Libyan dictator could have saved himself from his terrible fate at the end, when he was captured, tortured and killed as he tried to flee the last regime stronghold, Sirte. I saw his body on public display at a meat warehouse along with his dead son Muatassim. Standing beside me watching families queuing up to see the bodies was Abdullah Hakim Husseini, one of the rebel fighters from Misrata who had captured him. He shook his head: "We were shocked as he was at first when we caught him," he said. "I don't think anyone thought he would be there. We thought he would be in the south, Niger or Algeria."

But, as the subsequent capture of Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam showed, it would have been difficult for Gaddafi to have remained free at the very end. The window for a deal would have been in the early summer when there were proposals on the table which would have sent the dictator and his family going into exile with immunity from prosecution. At the time, the conflict was at an impasse, and doubts were rising in the US and Europe. Despite relentless Nato bombing and a naval blockade, the inept rebels in the east failed to make much headway against the regime. The assassination of their commander, Abdel Fatah Younis, by his own side demonstrated the extent to which the Benghazi based opposition was degenerating into an internecine feud.

Things were different in Misrata. The coastal city 120 miles from Tripoli endured a fierce siege with resilience and courage. The day after I arrived there on a boat carrying food and guns from Benghazi, salvoes of missiles killed 42 people killed and injured more than a hundred others. Among the houses destroyed was one where we had spent the night.

Despite the daily battering, the revolutionaries in Misrata were already thinking ahead to the post-Gaddafi landscape. Libya's third city was socially conservative but politically liberal. The Misrata men were dismissive of the fighting prowess of their comrades in the east, but worried about the reactionary form of Islam being espoused by some of the leaders there.

At a hurried dinner, after a hard day's fighting, the conversation turned to the influence of fundamentalism. There were questions about the Darnah battalion from the east, led by Abdul Hakim al-Hasidi, who had been to Afghanistan where he had met Osama bin Laden. What was he like in interviews? asked a member of the Misrata Council. "Well, he kept on saying that Libya was not Afghanistan," I replied. " He needs to remember that, we are not going through all this only to change one set of men telling us how to live our lives for another," snapped Abdullah Mohammed, an engineer turned fighter.

There were mutterings about the role of Qatar. The tiny Gulf state had become the biggest backer of the rebels in the Arab world. British and French commanders flew there to plan the ground campaign; the sheikhdom was pouring money and arms into Libya.

The Qataris were pushing hard for two men they had sponsored to move into positions of influence when the opposition came to power. Ali al-Sallabi, a deeply conservative cleric, was promoted as the spiritual mentor of the revolution. Abdulhakim Belhaj, a former leader of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG), became the Tripoli military commander after the regime's fall.

Commander Belhaj is now suing the British Government. Documents discovered in the offices of Musa Qusa, the head of the regime's intelligence service, by The Independent, revealed Sir Mark Allen, then MI6's head of counterterrorism, crowing about the part his service had played in sending him to face torture and imprisonment in Libya.

Belhaj did not get the place in the government he had expected, and in general his fellow Islamists were disappointed. The interim cabinet is one of technocrats. Elections due to be held next year will give a clearer picture of the national will. Four decades of Gaddafi has meant that political institutions and parties have to be built afresh.

There are also questions about the long term effect on the Libyan psyche of the civil war. There is no credible evidence to support claims 0f 50,000 dead made by an NTC official; the real figure is likely to be far less. But it is the case that both sides committed atrocities.

There are a few snapshots I recall. A man, called Amr Dau Algala, picking through ashes with a stick in a container where regime forces had burnt prisoners alive and coming across charred and broken bones; a little later finding a buckle and whispering "Only my brother was wearing a belt in our group." And a roundabout in Tripoli where the rebels had killed regime soldiers at a field hospital, clearly marked with the symbols of the Islamic Crescent. Some of the dead on stretchers, attached to intravenous drips. Some on the back of an ambulance which had been stopped and automatic rifles emptied on the patients. These things are never forgotten, and seldom forgiven. It remains to be seen whether a reckoning comes in the future.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?