His compound in Tripoli has been overrun, rebels control the closest international airport and world leaders including President Barack Obama are declaring his 42-year rule over.
One major question that remains unanswered is: Where is Moammar Gadhafi?
Rebel fighters who searched the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound in the Libyan capital on Tuesday found boxes of weapons and ammunition, but no Gadhafi.
With the fighters of the National Transitional Council also in control of Tripoli’s international airport, the options for an escape narrowed.
Mukhtar al-Ahmar, who led the rebels in the takeover of the airport, said there had been fierce clashes there Wednesday, and speculated that Gadhafi loyalists were trying to “to secure a route for Gadhafi to escape from Tripoli.”
He said he saw an official convoy after sunset Tuesday, and said it was “possible” Gadhafi was inside.
“He doesn’t seem to have much control of anything,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday. “It’s interesting that he still hasn’t been seen.”
So where could Gadhafi be?
Professor Abubaker Saad, a former Gadhafi aide, on Tuesday described to CNN a system of bunkers under the Gadhafi compound in Tripoli that could serve as a hideout.
However, Saad noted that NATO and the United States have fired anti-bunker bombs at the compound, so he doubted Gadhafi would hide out there.
“You have to remember that he is a military man,” Saad said. “He knows they have weapons that could penetrate those bunkers. That’s why I’m dismissing the idea that he’s still in there.”
There has been speculation that tunnels might lead from Gadhafi’s now-overrun bunker to the Rixos hotel, where about 35 journalists are being held against their will by low-ranking Gadhafi loyalists.
But CNN’s Matthew Chance, who is among the reporters trapped there, said journalists had scoured the hotel from top to bottom and seen no evidence of secret passages.
Saad also noted that Gadhafi’s recent public communications, such as a statement broadcast on radio and a reported telephone call to Russia, were audio messages to avoid detection of his whereabouts.
“The quality of the audio has deteriorated, and that’s an indication that he is speaking from a distance,” Saad said. “That’s why I am not really convinced that he is in the compound right now.”
U.S. officials called for Gadhafi to make clear that, regardless of where he may be, he knows he’s out as the nation’s leader.
The United States wants Gadhafi to issue “a reliable, affirmative statement” to the international community and his loyalists still fighting in Tripoli “that he understands … his leadership is over, so everyone can move on,” Nuland said.
While no sightings of Gadhafi have been reported, at least one source outside Libya — the head of the World Chess Federation — told Russia’s Interfax news agency that he spoke by telephone with him on Tuesday.
According to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, as reported by Interfax, Gadhafi said in the phone call to him at around 10 a.m. ET that he is “alive and well in Tripoli and not going to leave Libya.”
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of not being identified, said Gadhafi is most likely still in Tripoli. There has been nothing to confirm some reports or speculation that the longtime leader has gone to his hometown of Sirte, the official said.
Observers cite three likely scenarios for Gadhafi’s immediate future — his death at the hands of rebel forces, his capture, or his escape or exile to another country.
Gadhafi and his second-eldest son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, are under indictment for alleged crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. Officials at the ICC have made clear they want the Gadhafis to stand trial in The Hague, if possible.
Countries considered possible exile homes for Gadhafi include Venezuela, a rumored destination for months. Gadhafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have a close relationship forged in part by shared opposition to U.S. influence around the globe.
In 2009, Chavez was one of three world leaders to attend a lavish celebration of Gadhafi’s 40 years of rule in Tripoli, along with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and King Abdullah of Jordan. That same year a new football stadium in the now rebel-held town of Benghazi was named after the Venezuelan leader.
On Tuesday, Chavez said his country would only recognize a Libyan government led by Gadhafi, state media reported.
“From here we confirm our solidarity with the Libyan people, our brother that is being assaulted and bombed … as part of the imperial insanity,” Chavez said during a meeting of government ministers in Caracas, the state-run AVN news agency reported.
Zimbabwe also is considered a possible exile destination, due to common interests between Gadhafi and President Mugabe — an interest in pan-African solidarity, a disdain for colonial influence and the ignominy of being largely shunned by the international community.
Saudi Arabia is considered a desert nation that might be more to Gadhafi’s Bedouin liking. The Saudis accepted the deposed leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after the uprising there that helped touch off protests across the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya, this year.
However, Gadhafi’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has cooled since the Saudis accused Libyans of trying to kill their king several years ago, and it would be unlikely for the desert kingdom to accept an exiled Gadhafi now, according to Christopher Boucek, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Other nations mentioned as possible destinations for Gadhafi include Cuba, Syria and Sudan.