Gaddafi's trail had run cold – but all roads led to the town of his birth

Even in the wilderness terrain of Libya, he couldn't escape his pursuers

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 03 November 2011 17:17

Born in the country, a child of Italian colonialism, Giovanni Martinelli had been ordained a priest in Italy and had returned to Libya itself, just two years after the dictator took office, and had stayed ever since. Back at the beginning of April this year, when it was far from clear that the tyrant would be driven from office, Bishop Martinelli mused at St Francis Catholic church in the Dahra district of Tripoli about what lay in the future for the "Brother leader" with whom he had made an accommodation and whom he could justly claim to have known longer than any foreigner. "It's in his character," he said. "He is a Bedouin... he is ready to die by force but not to go."

Yesterday's brutal end game in Sirte proved the worldly old cleric right. But it was a long time coming, all the more strikingly so, given the $1.3m bounty that had been put on Gaddafi's head. True, the early assumption had been that he would be hiding out in the country which he had ruled by fear for 42 years; maybe in Sirte, but maybe also in Bani Walid, or maybe even much further to the south.

But as the hunt launched by the rebels and Nato forces from the moment the hated regime fell failed to find any trace of his whereabouts, the speculation ranged further afield. Had he planned to join the convoy of former Libyan army vehicles that had passed into neighbouring Niger, perhaps on its way to Burkina Faso, long thought to be one of the few countries that might be prepared to take him? An unnamed French military source, quoted by Reuters in early September, certainly thought it highly possible, a view bolstered by Niger's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who pointed out that surveillance over thousands of miles of desert was well-nigh impossible.

"The desert zone is vast and the frontier is porous," he said, portentously. "If a convoy of 200 to 250 vehicles went through, it is like a drop of water in an ocean." Could he be in Chad, from which he was widely reputed to have recruited mercenaries to join his battle against the "rats" of the rebellion against his 42-year rule? And could he perhaps, despite the denials that its government would provide him with a haven, have fled to Algeria, where his wife, daughter and a son had made a pre-emptory escape in August?

By September, it had been a commonplace, reinforced by the assertions by some in the Western-backed transitional council, that he was holed up in, or in the desert to the south of, Ghadamis, a town on Libya's borders with Algeria and Tunisia, eight hours drive west of Tripoli, where he was assumed to be under the protection of fierce Tuareg tribesmen in his pay.

It was from there, after all, that he might be able to slip into Algeria if the rebel forces closed in; and it was there that the Libyan leading the hunt in the area, Colonel Moftah al-Swiah, a 38-year-old former detective, told the Sunday Telegraph: "We will examine every grain of sand in the search for him."

By now there were reports that British special forces personnel in 22 SAS regiment, said to have been fighting alongside Libyan rebel forces in the final stages of the revolution, had been ordered to switch their focus to what had become the mother of all manhunts, one which had to achieve its goal if Libya's population were finally to be liberated from the fear which the dictator had generated for so long. It was just such a liberation that the spectacular celebrations in Tripoli and towns and cities across Libya were all about.

Until yesterday the trail had never really warmed up. Perhaps Gaddafi, with every reason to fear reprisals from a nation he had terrorised since the ugly televised hangings of dissidents in the early Seventies, had heeded the code of prominent wanted men on the run. The method was enunciated to Reuters in August by Graham Cundy, a British military specialist at Diligence, a security and intelligence consultancy, who pointed out that among the techniques were avoidance of the use of mobile phones, or phones at all; use only trusted gate-keepers to relay your messages; eschew overt signs of protection – armoured convoys, large bodyguard details that can be seen by drones – perhaps even consider the use of doubles and misdirection.

Either way it seems in retrospect almost inevitable that he would return to his tribal home of Sirte, the coastal town he had lavished spending on in the hope of making it an international conference centre. To anyone visiting Sirte as long ago as March when it was under bombardment from Nato forces, as the ragged line between the rebel and pro-regime forces was sliding from west to east and back again, it was apparent this was one place in Libya where the support for Gaddafi among much of the population was genuine. Gaddafi had gone home. And it was here that yesterday he fulfilled Bishop Martinelli's prophecy of seven long months ago.

Loyal to the end: Gaddafi's final few

Saif al-Islam

While there were early reports that Gaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent was at large near the city of Bani Walid, the interim Justice Minister said he had been captured, shot in the leg and hospitalised while trying to flee Sirte. But previous reports of his capture soon after the rebels took Tripoli turned out to be false.

Mo'tassim Gaddafi

The interim information minister said that Gaddafi's fourth son – and the ousted regime's national security adviser – had been hiding out with his father and was killed during the final assault on Sirte. A video was released purporting to show his corpse on a gurney. Gaddafi's Defence Minister, Abu Bakr Yunis, was reported to have been killed with him.

Khamis Gaddafi

The latest report on a pro-Gaddafi TV station on Tuesday said the youngest child of Gaddafi – a commander of an élite military unit – had been killed in August by rebel forces. Gaddafi's second-youngest son, Saif al-Arab, was killed early in the Nato bombing; his four other children are at large.

Abdullah al-Senussi

Reports suggested the intelligence chief wanted by The Hague for war-crimes charges was among the loyalists fleeing in the same convoy as Gaddafi. One NTC official said he was killed.

Moussa Ibrahim

Gaddafi's spokesman had fled Tripoli with his German wife and child. Unconfirmed reports yesterday said the former Minister of Information had been captured alive near Sirte.

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