Thursday, October 20, 2011


October 20, 2011
Qaddafi Is Killed as Libyan Forces Take Surt
MISURATA, Libya — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the former Libyan strongman who fled into hiding after an armed uprising toppled his regime two months ago, met a violent and vengeful death Thursday in the hands of rebel fighters who stormed his final stronghold in Surt, his Mediterranean home town. At least one of his sons was also killed.

Al Jazeera television showed footage of Colonel Qaddafi, bloodied but still alive, as he was dragged around by armed men in Surt. The network also broadcast a separate clip of his upper body, partly stripped, with eyes staring vacantly and an apparent gunshot wound to the head, as jubilant fighters fired automatic weapons in the air. A third video, posted on Youtube, showed excited fighters hovering around his lifeless-looking body, posing for photographs and yanking his limp head up and down by the hair.

Colonel Qaddafi’s body was seized by a brigade of Misurata-based fighters who had been fighting in Surt. They brought it to this port city in an ambulance and placed it in a private house. The local authorities had it moved to another house after a few hours, as hundreds of jubilant residents converged outside.

Reporters accompanying Ali Tarhouni, a deputy chairman of the Transitional National Council who went to view the body, saw Colonel Qaddafi splayed out on a mattress in a reception room, shirtless, with bullet wounds in the chest and temple and with blood on the arms and hair. Three medical officials arrived, presumably to conduct an autopsy.

Conflicting accounts quickly emerged about whether Colonel Qaddafi was executed by his captors or died from gunshot wounds sustained in a firefight. But the images broadcast by Al Jazeera punctuated an emphatic and gruesome ending to his four decades as a ruthless and bombastic autocrat who had basked in his reputation as the self-styled king of kings of Africa.

“We have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Muammar Qaddafi has been killed,” Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the Transitional National Council, the interim government, told a news conference in Tripoli. Mahmoud Shammam, the council’s chief spokesman, called it “the day of real liberation. We were serious about giving him a fair trial. It seems God has some other wish.”

Libyan television also reported that one of Colonel Qaddafi’s feared sons, Muatassim, was killed in Surt on Thursday, and broadcast images of what it said was Muatassim’s bloodstained corpse on a hospital gurney. There were also unconfirmed accounts that another son, Seif al-Islam, had been captured and possibly wounded.

Officials of the Transitional National Council told reporters late on Thursday that Colonel Qaddafi had been killed in a crossfire, when a gunfight erupted between his captors and his supporters in Surt — making the argument that he was not killed intentionally. Forensics experts outside Libya who viewed photographs of the body said the wounds appeared to have been caused by handgun fire at close range, and not higher-velocity assault-rifle fire from a distance.

In Washington, President Obama said in a televised statement that the death of Colonel Qaddafi signaled the start of a new chapter for Libya. “We can definitely say that the Qaddafi regime has come to an end,” he said. “The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted and with this enormous promise the Libyan people now have a great responsibility to build an inclusive and tolerant and democratic Libya that stands as the ultimate rebuke to Qaddafi’s dictatorship.”

Libyans rejoiced throughout the day as news of Colonel Qaddafi’s death spread. Car horns blared and residents poured into the streets in giddy disbelief in Tripoli, Misurata and in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the rebellion against Colonel Qaddafi began in February and where it escalated into the most violent of the Arab Spring uprisings.

“I can’t believe it’s over,” said Tahir Busrewil, a 26 year-old tourist-industry worker in Tripoli who was imprisoned and tortured earlier this year, and who spent the past few weeks working with a militia to detain pro-Qaddafi loyalists. “Oh the relief! I never felt that happy about somebody being dead.”

Walid Fakany, an anti-Qaddafi fighter from the Western mountain town of Rujban who joined in the celebrations in Tripoli, said: “We can breathe, we can finally rest. Then we can move forward.”

Holly Pickett, a freelance photojournalist working in Surt, reported in a Twitter feed that she had seen Colonel Qaddafi’s body in an ambulance headed for Misurata, and that 10 fighters were in the vehicle with the body. It was unclear from her posting whether he was dead at that point. “From the side door, I could see a bare chest with bullet wound and a bloody hand. He was wearing gold-colored pants,” she tweeted.

Within an hour of initial reports of Colonel Qaddafi’s death, the Arab twittersphere lit up with gleeful comments, many of them hinting at a similar fate awaiting other Arab dictators who have sought to crush popular uprisings in their countries — most notably, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. One of the messages read: “Ben Ali escaped, Mubarak is in jail, Qaddafi was killed. Which fate do you prefer, Ali Abdullah Saleh? You can consult with Bashar.” Another was more direct: “Bashar al-Assad, how do you feel today?”

A popular link led to a cartoon with portraits of the five dictators, the first three with big red X’s painted over them, while below them walks an angry-looking man toting a large brush covered with red paint. Written on the man’s clothing is the Arabic word for “the people.”

Mr. Jibril, the Libyan prime minister, said he had no details about how Colonel Qaddafi was killed, saying that more information would be provided when the government has a clearer picture of the chaotic events. But Mr. Jibril said he was confident that Colonel Qaddafi was not killed by NATO warplanes attacking a convoy, one of several unconfirmed accounts flying as news of the death was first reported.

A senior Western official in Europe who is knowledgeable about NATO’s operations in Surt on Thursday said that there had been strong suspicions for days that Colonel Qaddafi and his sons were hiding in three buildings in the northwest quadrant of the city that had resisted repeated ground assaults. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said both NATO and anti-Qaddafi fighters believed that the Qaddafis, if they were in those buildings, might attempt to flee at any time.

He said that American-supplied surveillance drones alerted NATO to an 80-vehicle convoy leaving that area of Surt at dawn, and that French Mirage jets blasted two of the convoy’s armed vehicles, forcing the others to disperse. That is when anti-Quaddafi forces on the ground attacked the remaining vehicles, including one that is believed to have been carrying Colonel Qaddafi and perhaps his sons, the official said.

In a statement from NATO’s Libya operations headquarters in Naples, Italy, Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, confirmed that the alliance’s aircraft struck two armed Libyan military vehicles near Surt, but the he said that NATO officers did not know who was in them. “It is not NATO policy to target specific individuals,” he said.

A BBC correspondent reporting from Surt, Gabriel Gatehouse, said he had spoken with fighters there who said they had found Colonel Qaddafi hiding in a large storm drain, dragged him out, disarmed him of his golden pistol and shot him to death when he tried to escape. Mr. Gatehouse quoted one of the fighters as saying that Colonel Qaddafi asked him, “What did I do to you?”

Mohamed Benrasali, a member of the national council’s Tripoli Stabilization Committee, gave a different account of Colonel Qaddafi’s end, saying hew was told by fighters from Misurata that Colonel Qaddafi was captured alive in a car leaving Surt. He was badly injured with wounds in his head and both legs, Mr. Benrasali said he was told, and died soon after capture.

Al Jazeera quoted an unidentified official of the Transitional National Council as saying Mussa Ibrahim, the former spokesman of Colonel Qaddafi, was captured near Surt as well. Reuters quoted the foreign minister of Niger as saying that Colonel Qaddafi’s despised former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, had fled there on Thursday across the southern Libyan desert, as dozens of other Qaddafi loyalists and some of the colonel’s relatives have done in recent weeks.

As his regime melted away, though, Colonel Qaddafi himself defied repeated attempts to corner and capture him, taunting his enemies with audio broadcasts denouncing the rebel forces as stooges of NATO. The alliance’s bombing campaign neutralized his air force and heavy weapons during the uprising, under the auspices of a Security Council mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Colonel Qaddafi’s elusiveness clearly vexed the Transitional National Council, and even with his death on Thursday it was unclear whether he had been deliberately targeted or had been found by chance.

His death followed weeks of futile searching, beset by scant hard information and by promising leads that went cold. As recently as a few days ago, American intelligence officials said they assumed the deposed leader had not left Libya but they knew little about where he might be hiding. A large convoy of vehicles spotted from the air driving south towards a remote town in the desert proved to be a false lead, one former American intelligence official said.

Before most Americans had heard of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi was America’s top bogeyman. After a string of terror attacks he ordered in the 1980s, blunting his regime;’s power became a top priority at the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency. On Thursday, officers involved in that campaign expressed some gratification that Colonel Qaddafi had met his end.

“Some of us lost friends, both American and Libyan, to Qaddafi and his murders,” said William D. Murray, who was in charge of Libyan operations at the C.I.A. during the 1980s. “He died the coward he was,” he added. “Good riddance.”

For their part, officials of the transitional government were elated at Colonel Qaddafi’s death. They had been saying since his fall from power that once he was dead or captured, they could declare the country liberated and in control of its borders, and begin a process of unifying the country, bringing the proliferation of armed militias under control and holding a general election for a national council within eight months.

Earlier on Thursday, before news broke of Colonel Qaddafi’s death, Libyan fighters said they had routed the last loyalist forces from Surt, ending weeks of fierce fighting there. A military spokesman for the interim government, Abdel Rahman Busin, said, “Surt is fully liberated.”

The battle for the city, on the central coast east of Tripoli, was supposed to be a minor postscript to the Libyan conflict, but loyalist soldiers mounted a fierce defense for weeks, weathering NATO airstrikes and repeated assaults by anti-Qaddafi fighters. The anti-Qaddafi leaders were caught off guard by the depth of divisions in western Libya, where the colonel’s policy of playing favorites and stoking rivalries has resulted in a series of violent confrontations.

Surt emerged as the stage for one of the war’s bloodiest fights, killing and injuring scores on both sides, devastating the city and raising fears that the weak transitional leaders would not be able to unify the country.

The tide of battle turned nearly two weeks ago, when the anti-Qaddafi fighters laid siege to an enormous convention center that the pro-Qaddafi troops had used as a base.

Kareem Fahim reported from Misurata and Tripoli, Libya, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Steven Lee Myers from Kabul, Afghanistan; Mauricio Lima from Surt, Libya; J. David Goodman from New York; and Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth from Washington.
Source: The NY Times, © 2011

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