The hunt for Gaddafi – and his victims – goes on

Samia Nakhoul and Mohammed Abbas in Tripoli and David Randall report on the search for the former dictator and for the disappeared

There are two desperate searches going on in Libya this weekend. One is the hunt for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the other for tens of thousands of his victims. Many of these victims will be dead, some may be wounded but alive; but their relatives won't know which until they can trace them or their bodies. And so, across the country, at hospitals and burial grounds, relatives arrive to ask questions, show photographs, and hope for answers. Many will never be given them.

Those tracking the fugitive dictator have rather more to go on. Yesterday, as rebel forces pressed closer to two of the old regime's last refuges – Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and Ben Walid, south-east of the capital – a less visible offensive was under way. The man running it is Hisham Buhagiar, an official in the rebel military who belonged to an exiled opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, underwent special forces training in Sudan and Iraq in the 1980s, later gained a master's degree in business studies from the University of Seattle and then returned to Libya to set up a textile business.

He said: "There are some groups who are looking for him and trying to listen to his calls. Of course he doesn't use the phone, but we know the people around him who do use phones. Usually we trace a lot of people who are not in the first inner circle with him, but the second or third circle. We're talking to them. They want to strike deals. That's why we've created the white list. Everyone who helps us is on the white list."

Mr Buhagiar, commander of the rebel fighters who descended on Tripoli from the western mountains, showed Reuters intelligence reports detailing telephone numbers, locations and Google maps of possible targets. They have searched 10 locations so far, some outside the Libyan capital. He said Gaddafi, originally a tribal man who acquired extravagant tastes over the years, could last in hiding longer than Iraq's Saddam Hussein did before US troops found him a hole in the ground near his hometown of Tikrit. "Yes, Gaddafi could live in a hole. He's proud of being the guy who lives in a tent. He's an old revolutionary Stalin type who will try to survive anywhere he can. After losing Tripoli, he will not have any money... his supply lines are definitely cut."

Mr Buhagiar identified four areas still under Gaddafi's control – Tarhouna, Sirte and Bani Walid in the north, and Sabha in the south – which he said Libya's new leaders hope to take through negotiation rather than military assault. "We believe that the revolutionaries in these areas are already in good numbers," he said, adding that the biggest challenge is gaining the trust of people in pro-Gaddafi areas: "It's not so easy to convince them because they have been under the influence of Gaddafi's media for 40 years, and now we're trying to explain to them that we are not terrorists, we are good for the country."

There are, however, still considerable pockets of loyalty to Gaddafi in places such as Tarhouna, where he has retained support by nurturing particular tribes, offering generous government benefits and jobs to those he saw as key supporters.

Hassan Sultan, for instance, received about $500 a month in unemployment assistance – more than a low-level civil servant's salary. And men from the area's dominant tribe – also called Tarhouna – held many positions in the Libyan military. "It had nothing to do with money," said Jafer Abdel Sadik, 21, who still sells the green flags of the Gaddafi regime in his mobile phone shop, in which one wall is decorated with a large poster of the former dictator. "Under Gaddafi, we lived peacefully and were secure."

While Tarhouna, Sirte and Ben Walid wait for the inevitable – whether by attack or negotiation – the relatives of Libya's missing continue their seemingly impossible task. In the battle for Tripoli alone, hundreds of people killed in late August had to be buried in unmarked graves. Retreating Gaddafi forces killed scores of detainees as the rebels advanced, according to witnesses. In one case, they left dozens of bodies charred beyond recognition near a military base. The bodies of others killed in the fighting, from pro-Gaddafi African fighters to a doctor in hospital scrubs, were hastily collected and piled in a mortuary or dumped by the roadside. Many may never be identified. Of 297 bodies brought to Tripoli Central Hospital since 20 August, 170 had to be buried without names, said the director, Gassem Baruni. At the Tripoli Medical Centre, a majority of the 200 bodies collected in the second half of August were unidentified, mortuary attendants said.

But for now, most relatives remain in a desperate limbo, not knowing whether to mourn or hope. In the lobby of the Central Hospital, photos of missing men cover one wall, with brief descriptions of final sightings and contact details of relatives. Haloma Cherif, an 18-year-old hospital volunteer, said she had collected about 500 missing persons reports, all of them men, and more pour in each day. "Seeing the parents coming, it is a hard feeling," said Ms Cherif. The most difficult thing, she said, is sending family members to the mortuary. "I feel really terrible."

The plight of the Abu Naama family is pitifully typical. Five sons of Abdel Salam Abu Naama and his wife Wasfiya vanished at a checkpoint manned by Gaddafi loyalists on 22 August. Since then, a small army of friends and relatives has fanned out across Tripoli, searching hospitals and mortuaries, travelling to nearby farming areas in case the men were taken out of the city, and talking to both rebels and Gaddafi supporters. They have found no sign of the men, who are aged between 21 and 31.

"It's hard... five children," Mr Abu Naama said quietly, pulling his sons' passport photographs from his pocket, and laying them out on a cushion in his living room, as friends and relatives gathered around. He carefully arranged them according to age: Mohammed, 31, a mechanical engineer; Ali, 29, also a mechanical engineer; Abu Bakr, 26, an aviation engineer; Ahmed, 23, another mechanical engineer; and Faisal, 21, a geography student.

His sons kept a low profile during the fighting but were grabbed by pro-Gaddafi soldiers at a checkpoint on the road to Tripoli airport. Just after dawn, Ahmed had left the house without telling anyone, apparently to visit a friend in another neighbourhood, his mother said. He was only two miles from the house when he was detained.

A little later, she received a phone call from Ahmed, who said he had been in an accident and that his brothers should come and get him. Mrs Abu Naama believes that Gaddafi soldiers forced him to make the call to lure in his brothers. So Ali, Faisal and Abu Bakr went to find Ahmed. When she didn't hear from them, Mohammed – who was still in the house with her – called Ahmed's number. A soldier answered and told Mohammed to come to the checkpoint.

Mohammed, his mother and a neighbour drove to the airport road, where they were stopped at gunpoint. The soldiers pulled Mohammed from the car and began beating him. "I said what did my son do?" A woman in military uniform cursed her and her sons, calling them "rats", a term Gaddafi often used to describe the rebels. Eventually, Mrs Abu Naama and the neighbour were ordered to go, leaving Mohammed behind. She didn't see the other four at the checkpoint.

Mrs Abu Naama has heard nothing from her sons since then, and hope has faded since a relative told the family that he saw three of the brothers inside Gaddafi's residential and government complex, Bab al-Aziziya, on 23 August. Thousands of rebels had stormed the compound that day, exchanging heavy fire with retreating government troops.

The relative, a soldier in the Libyan army, said he watched as Mohammed, Faisal and Abu Bakr were shot near the gate of the compound. He saw them drop to the ground. Three boys among tens of thousands whose fate may never be known.

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