Muammar Gaddafi's wife and three of his children fled Libya as thousands of rebels massed on the outskirts of the former dictator's home town in preparation for an assault on the regime's final major stronghold.
The authorities in Algeria said yesterday that Colonel Gaddafi's wife Safia, sons Mohammed and Hannibal and daughter Aisha had crossed the border in a symbolic sign of the disintegration of the upper echelons of the 42-year dictatorship.
The whereabouts of Gaddafi himself remained unknown last night and there was no sign of his other surviving sons, who have led the rearguard action against the rebellion. There were suggestions that Gaddafi was holed up in his home town of Sirte, 460km (280 miles) from Tripoli, preparing for a desperate final battle. News of the Gaddafi family's flight was the first concrete information about his coterie to emerge since the rebels' swift and dramatic capture of the Libyan capital a week ago. The failure to find Colonel Gaddafi has cast uncertainty over the rebels' success.
The Egyptian news agency Mena reported at the weekend that six armoured Mercedes cars carrying Gaddafi's sons or other leading figures from the regime had crossed the border into neighbouring Algeria.
Algeria initially denied this but its foreign ministry has now confirmed the reports to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and the head of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC), according to Algerian media.
If the reports are true, the TNC will "demand that Algerian authorities hand them over to Libya to be tried before Libyan courts", said Ahmed Jibril, an aide to the TNC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil. One of Gaddafi's sons, Mohammed, was captured last week but, in an embarrassing episode for the rebel leadership, he managed to escape. He and Hannibal, who embarrassed his father by making headlines with his luxurious lifestyle and acts of violence, were not central figures in the regime, though they held public roles and enjoyed the fruits of the dictatorship.
Colonel Gaddafi's other sons – his one-time heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, and Khamis, head of the elite Khamis Brigade paramilitary group – have had a much greater role in defending the regime, and were still at large last night.
The rebels claimed yesterday that Khamis had been killed but similar previous reports of his demise have proved to be wrong. Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman, said Khamis may have died in a clash between rebels and a military convoy south of the capital on Saturday. Two vehicles were destroyed but anti-Gaddafi forces identified two of the bodies as those of his bodyguards. "We are sure [Khamis] is dead," a rebel commander, Colonel Boujela Issawi, told the Associated Press. However, he then added that Khamis, Gaddafi's seventh and youngest son, could have been pulled alive from the car and taken to a contested area. News of Khamis's possible death came as the International Criminal Court said it was considering issuing a warrant for his arrest over claims that members of his elite unit carried out summary executions at a warehouse in Tripoli.
Mr Bani also said he was not surprised to hear that Algeria had welcomed Gaddafi's relatives. Throughout the six-month Libyan uprising, rebels have accused Algeria of providing Gaddafi with mercenaries to curb the revolution. Following news of the family's escape, the White House said it had no evidence to suggest Gaddafi had fled the country. "If we knew where he was, we would pass that on to the opposition forces," said a White House spokesman, Jay Carney.
Gaddafi's possible location is in Sirte, east of the capital on the Mediterranean coast. The regime's last major stronghold is reputedly protected by a minefield and an elite military unit. About 4,000 rebel fighters were gathered on the western front with Sirte, about 110 miles outside the city, their commanders said. Opposition forces also gathered from the east in an attempt to wrest the city from Gaddafi loyalists. "The Libyans in Sirte don't want to fight but there are senior Gaddafi people there who are in control," said Abdul Rahman Omar, 27, a fighter from Misrata. "We don't want any more blood."
The rebels estimate they will come up against about 1,000 pro-regime fighters, but hope that talks to negotiate the town's surrender will prevent any bloodshed. Most of Sirte's 100,000 residents are from the same tribe as Gaddafi. Hopes for a peaceful resolution have faded amid reports that forces loyal to the former dictator are urging people in Sirte to fight or be murdered by the rebels. "They are trying to tell the people that the battle is no longer for Gaddafi but to protect themselves," Hassan Droy, the TNC representative for Sirte, told Reuters, adding that a message from Gaddafi was broadcast three days ago, urging people to fight to save themselves. The rebels have tried to counter that message by spreading word that they want to avoid bloodshed. "We are sending a clear message that our troops won't kill anyone," said Mohammed Zawawi, a rebel spokesman.
The final push towards Sirte came as a semblance of normality returned to Tripoli, although residents were still without water and fuel supplies remained scarce. Shops which had been closed for days began to reopen in the city centre and traffic returned to the once-deserted streets.
The rebels appear now to be in full control after a week of fierce fighting in which they seized Colonel Gaddafi's compound, although gunfire could still be heard in the centre yesterday.
The dictator’s second wife and the mother of seven of his children. They have been married for 40 years and she is said to control a multimillionpound fortune. Safia, a shopper of some repute, is said to have met Gaddafi when she nursed him through a bout of appendicitis.
A former head of a maritime transport company, Hannibal is better known for his wild excesses. He was accused of beating his pregnant girlfriend in 2005, and then sparked a diplomatic incident in 2008 after his arrest at a Swiss hotel when two members of staff said he beat them.
Considered the most intelligent of the next generation, but not seen as a likely successor. A lawyer by profession, she helped with the defence of Saddam Hussein at the trial that led to his death sentence. She is said to have been involved in attempts to clear up the mess left by her brothers. She was named as a goodwill ambassador for Libya by the United Nations in 2009 – an appointment that was withdrawn after the start of the regime’s bloody crackdown against demonstrations.
The eldest son of Colonel Gaddafi and the only child of his first wife Fatiha, Mohammed has largely steered clear of politics. Born in 1970, he trained as a computer scientist and went on to chair the state-controlled General Post and Telecommunications Company, which runs Libya's satellite networks, and shut down the internet at the beginning of protests. He was also head of the National Olympic Committee. Escaped from rebel hands after his capture last week.