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Under the broken city, families explore Gaddafi's warren

The ghostly chanting echoed along the blast-proof concrete walls of the dark subterranean passages. "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," sang the rebels in a quivering chorus as they wandered yesterday wide-eyed through the pitch-black maze of tunnels deep below Muammar Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziah stronghold while celebratory gunfire and mortar blasts reverberated outside.

Some say there may be as many as 200 miles of tunnels under Tripoli, a warren of bunkers and passageways capable of holding cars and weapons stashes, where the fugitive former leader could be hiding. The network of underground walkways could connect to strategic sites around the capital, including the coast, airport and highways leading out of the city.

But the tunnels directly below Bab al-Azizah seen by The Independent on Sunday were smaller than that. A series of walkways, 6ft wide and 8ft high, connected houses in the compound to the lawns of the six-hectare compound outside. Some of the passages were slightly wider and would be capable of carrying a golf cart of the kind Colonel Gaddafi had been seen riding in past video footage.

The tunnels were accessible through vents scattered around the sprawling compound. Twenty feet down, a metal ladder bolted to the breeze block wall, there were passages, off which were a burnt-out office, a flooded bedroom, and unexplained, bolted doors.

One of these tunnels emerged amid spacious bungalows housing luxurious living quarters with a shared swimming pool. Though ransacked and partially burnt, the charred furniture and smashed television sets revealed an opulence inaccessible to many Libyans. "We could never get in, but even when we drove past the complex we stopped talking of politics," said Suliman Ali Zway, 27, a construction manager from Benghazi.

But today, Libyans – fighters, families and young men – wandered through the buildings, inspecting the abandoned paraphernalia of a privileged, domestic existence. The lush lawns were shaded by beds of shrubs and trees, their branches straining with the weight of unpicked dates and lemons. Low lights lit winding paths leading to a small white gazebo. The outdoor swimming pool was surrounded a low glass fence, the child locks still fixed to the gates. Flanked by pine decking and sheltered by an elegant canopy of wooden slats, the whitish scum of the water was broken by an abandoned mattress bobbing next to two plastic dolls and a wooden rocking chair.

A well-thumbed copy of the Financial Times's weekend supplement, "How To Spend It", lay on a coffee table in a cavernous sitting room next to books and newspapers in English and Arabic. Bank statements, textbooks and children's toys were scattered in the hallway outside. In the master bedroom, tubes of men's anti-ageing cream lay by the bedside table, beside painkillers and nasal decongestant. Elsewhere was a packet of Italian anti-cellulite cream and Wellwoman evening primrose oil.

Radwan Hashari wore designer sunglasses and a freshly laundered polo shirt. A sales and marketing executive, he had come to see inside the compound which he last visited in April 2006 when he assisted backstage at a Lionel Richie concert for the dictator. "This is victory," he said. "I've come to take pictures to post on Facebook. I'm going to show the world."

Nearby, the stench of a corpse decomposing in the beating sun mingled with the scent of cinnamon spilt in one of the industrial-sized kitchens, as a group of young men levered a huge fridge through the doorway of an abandoned bungalow.

Fighters from Misrata entered the compound in a convoy of pick-up trucks, firing guns. But families touring the grounds were unperturbed by the din. For so many years, they said, what lay behind the walls of their former leader's home had remained a mystery. "We never imagined that we would be able to stand here one day," said Tariq Mohammed Tantoush, 46. He had returned to Libya from Dundee five years ago where he worked as a university professor teaching management. Yesterday afternoon, he was taking his three sons, Suhaib, 16, Malik, 14, and Qasim, 12, to tour the compound. "It's a moment that only happens once in a lifetime," he said, "the feeling that for every tyranny, there is an end."