The outlines of how Muammar Gaddafi died are already well known: gruesome footage of him being abused and manhandled by rebel militiamen after his capture on 20 October 2011 went around the world. But the exact circumstances of how he came to be found, bloodied and bowed, in a concrete pipe in Sirte, his home town, were less certain. Now a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), released yesterday, drawing on interviews with close associates of the dictator who survived the final battle and rebels present at his capture, provides appalling new detail about his last hours.
Only a few years before this man had been courted by Tony Blair and other world leaders. Now he was holed up in the desert with few loyalists, rapidly running out of food, patience and hope. Soon he was to die a hideous, humiliating death.
The report claims that at least 66 members of Gaddafi's convoy were summarily executed by the militias after their capture – a war crime, one which the Libyan civilian and military authorities have an obligation to investigate. To date they have shown no inclination to do so. And while the Libyan authorities claim that Gaddafi himself was killed in crossfire during the final battle, the evidence amassed by HRW strongly suggests that he was effectively lynched. The testimony includes an admission by a key militia commander that "the situation was a mess... it was a violent scene... it was very confusing." Cellphone footage obtained by the organisation shows that among other injuries he was stabbed in the anus, probably with a bayonet.
It was on the fall of Tripoli on 28 August 2011 that Gaddafi and a small entourage fled the capital. Nobody was sure where he had gone: some members of his family turned up in neighbouring Algeria. Now we know that he headed to Sirte, 450km along the coast to the east, the formerly shabby village which he had promoted as the capital of his putative "United States of Africa."
Attacked from both Benghazi to the east and Misrata to the west, the siege of this city of some 70,000 people continued for nearly two months. Its defence was in the hands of Gaddafi's fourth son, Mutassim. As the militia fighters closed in, Gaddafi and his companions were forced to move frequently, finishing up in District Two, on the eastern outskirts.
"We first stayed in the city centre," Mansour Dhao, head of the People's Guard, told HRW, "but then the mortars started to reach there... Finally we moved to District Two. We didn't have a reliable food supply any more... There was no medicine. We had difficulty getting water – the water tanks were targeted, or maybe they were just hit in random shelling... We changed places every four or five days."
Gaddafi himself "spent most of his time reading the Koran and praying", Dhao said. "His communications with the world were cut off: there was no television, nothing. We had no duties, we were just between sleeping and being awake. Nothing to do.
"[As time went on] Muammar Gaddafi became more and more angry. Mostly he was angry about the lack of electricity, communications and television, his inability to communicate to the outside world. We would go and see him and sit with him for an hour or so, and he would ask, 'Why is there no electricity? Why is there no water?'"
Then during the night from October 19 to October 20, the remnant of Gaddafi's forces holed up in District Two came under intensive and continuous bombardment by rebel Grad missiles and artillery. Mutassim organised a break-out, loading civilians and the wounded into a convoy of pick-ups, heavily loaded with arms and ammunition. But the planned departure time of 3.30 or 4am slipped to 8am, by which time the militia fighters were ready for them.
The convoy's hopes of breaking through the encircling forces were slim. They managed to reach a road leading south out of the city, but then a drone-fired missile exploded next to the car carrying Gaddafi. "It caused such a powerful blast that the air bags inflated and I was hit by shrapnel," said Dhao.
Mutassim Gaddafi's way was blocked in every direction, and drones and war planes circled overhead. The road he now led the convoy down was blocked by a militia base but he headed straight for it. "The convoy came towards our brigade building," militia commander Khalid Ahmed Raid recalled, "and shot at our gate with rocket-propelled grenades... so we began to fight back. They tried to go around our base... we opened fire on them with our [anti-aircraft] guns."
Nato planes now dropped two 12,500lb low-altitude airburst bombs on the convoy, destroying 14 vehicles, killing at least 53 people and forcing Gaddafi and his inner circle, all of whom survived, to flee on foot.
They took refuge in a nearby villa compound, but again came under heavy militia fire. A survivor later reported seeing Gaddafi there, "wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest, [with] a handgun in his pocket and carrying an automatic weapon... Then the villa started being shelled so we ran. There were a lot of cement construction blocks outside so we hid among those."
Mansour Dhao now persuaded his chief that they should go under the main road by means of drainage pipes, with the hope of reaching the safety of farms on the far side. But as soon as they emerged, militia fighters were on to them. Gaddafi's guards threw grenades to force them, but the third one they threw rebounded, exploding in their midst, killing the guard who threw it and wounding Gaddafi in the head. Militia fighters poured down to the pipes, astonished to find Gaddafi there.
It was in the subsequent three minutes and 38 seconds that the rebels' lust for vengeance erupted, captured in the phone footage obtained by HRW. "The situation was a mess," local militia commander Khalid Ahmed Raid admitted. "It was a violent scene. He was put on the front of a pick-up truck that tried to take him away and he fell off. It was very confusing. People were pulling his hair and hitting him. We understood there needed to be a trial, but we couldn't control everyone." When Gaddafi was eventually loaded into an ambulance, he was "nearly naked and apparently lifeless," HRW states. By the time he arrived in Misrata, a journey of at least two hours, he was "almost certainly dead."