After the anarchic drama of their capture and killing of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s new leaders argued over his body on Friday, while Libyans, and the world, awaited the formal launch of a new era of democracy.
A Reuters journalist saw the corpse, a bullet wound in the side of the head, lying in a cold store in an old market area of Misrata, where it was taken after the 69-year-old fugitive strongman was killed in his hometown of Sirte on Thursday.
A local commander said it would be buried with dignity and full Muslim rites within 24 hours, but the site was not yet determined. A senior official of the National Transitional Council told Reuters there was division in the upper reaches of the NTC over where Gaddafi’s final resting place should be.
“They are not agreeing on the place of burial. Under Islam he should have been buried quickly but they have to reach an agreement whether he is to be buried in Misrata, Sirte, or somewhere else,” said the senior official, speaking anonymously.
With expectations running high that a formal declaration of “liberation” could come by Saturday, setting a clock ticking on a timeline to a new constitution and elections, the interim oil minister said he was urging colleagues to keep the body chilled for some days to ensure there was no doubt Gaddafi was dead.
Arguments over where and how to dispose of the remains, as well as those of Gaddafi’s son Mo’tassim, followed surprise and confusion on Thursday over their capture and deaths and serve as a stark reminder of the challenges facing any new administration in imposing order on a country awash with guns and armed groups.
Another son of Gaddafi, heir apparent Saif al-Islam, was said by NTC officials to be still at large around Sirte, but his prospects of mounting a serious challenge were over.
Fighters from Misrata, Libya’s third city whose siege at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces became a symbol of revolt, were quick to take the bodies to their home ground and have been among the most prominent of groups pushing for a bigger say in government.
A declaration of liberation from 42 years of one-man rule would also, under present plans, formalise a move of the government from Benghazi, the second city and home of the first rebellion, in the far east, to Tripoli, the capital, in the west. But NTC officials were still unclear as to whether the declaration itself would be made in Benghazi or Tripoli.
Long-standing regional rivalries in a country only put together under Italian colonial rule in the 1930s are part of a complex of tribal, ethnic and other divisions which Gaddafi exploited at times to control the thinly populated country of six million and its substantial oil and gas resources.
As NATO powers prepared to wind down their air support mission which helped topple Gaddafi from Tripoli two months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said his death marked the start of a “new era”.
Oil minister Ali Tarhouni told Reuters that he was hoping he might be named prime minister next week as the new phase of transition to democracy begins. A period of eight months that had been hoped for as a schedule for a new constitution might be optimistic, however, Tarhouni added.
Confusion over exactly how Gaddafi died illustrates the challenge Libyans face to now summon order out of the armed chaos that is the legacy of eight months of conflict.
The killing or capture of senior aides, including possibly two sons, as an armoured convoy braved NATO air strikes in a desperate bid to break out of Sirte, may ease fears that diehards could regroup — though cellphone video, apparently of Gaddafi alive and being beaten, may inflame his sympathisers.
Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said on Thursday that Gaddafi was hit during “crossfire” while being taken to hospital, but most Libyans, including officials, seemed to have little doubt that he was probably killed by his captors.
As news of Gaddafi’s demise spread, people poured into the streets in jubilation. Joyous fighters fired their weapons in the air, shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
Others wrote graffiti on the parapets of the highway outside Sirte. One said simply: “Gaddafi was captured here”.
Jibril, reading what he said was a post-mortem report, said Gaddafi was hauled unresisting from a “sewage pipe”. He was then shot in the arm and put in a truck which was “caught in crossfire” as it ferried the former leader to hospital.
“He was hit by a bullet in the head,” Jibril said, adding it was unclear which side had fired the fatal shot. A doctor who examined the body later told Al Arabiya television that a bullet in the gut was the main cause of death.
Clinton, on a visit to Afghanistan, received first news of Gaddafi’s capture in a phone message. “Wow,” Clinton exclaimed, looking into a smart phone handed to her by an aide in Kabul. “Unconfirmed,” she said, explaining to those around her. “Unconfirmed reports about Gaddafi being captured.”
Speaking in Islamabad on Friday, Clinton said Gaddafi’s death marked the start of a “new era” for the Libyan people.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded a Franco-British move in NATO to back the revolt against Gaddafi, alluded to fears that, without the glue of hatred for Gaddafi, the new Libya could descend, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, into bloody factionalism: “The liberation of Sirte must signal … the start of a process … to establish a democratic system in which all groups in the country have their place and where fundamental freedoms are guaranteed,” he said.
Nabil Elaraby, chief of the Arab League which in March had given NATO actions a regional seal of approval when it backed a no-fly zone over Libya targeted at Gaddafi forces, called for unity.
Libyans should “overcome the wounds of the past, look towards the future away from sentiments of hatred and revenge,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported him as saying.
China, which had strained relations with the NTC after Beijing’s frosty reaction to NATO-led airstrikes and attempts by Chinese firms to sell Gaddafi weapons, but which now has better ties, echoed calls for unity. It said there was a need for “an inclusive political process”.
NATO, keen to portray the victory as that of the Libyans themselves, said it would wind down its military mission.
“KEEP HIM ALIVE”
The circumstances of the death of Gaddafi, who had vowed to go down fighting, remained obscure. Jerky video showed a man with Gaddafi’s distinctive long, curly hair, bloodied and staggering under blows from armed men, apparently NTC fighters.
The brief footage showed him being hauled by his hair from the hood of a truck. To the shouts of someone saying “Keep him alive”, he disappears from view and gunshots ring out.
“While he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him,” a senior source in the NTC told Reuters before Jibril spoke of crossfire. “He might have been resisting.”
The leader of Gaddafi’s personal bodyguards said the former strongman had survived an airstrike on his convoy.
“I was with Gaddafi and Abu Bakr Younis Jabr (head of Gaddafi’s army) and about four volunteer soldiers,” Mansour Daou told al Arabiya television. He said he had not witnessed the final moments of his leader because he had fallen unconscious from a wound.
In Benghazi, where in February Gaddafi disdainfully said he would hunt down the “rats” who had emulated their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours by rising up against an unloved autocrat, thousands took to the streets, loosing off weapons and dancing under the old tricolour flag revived by Gaddafi’s opponents.
Accounts were hazy of Gaddafi’s final hours, as befitted a man who retained an aura of mystery in the desert down the decades as he first tormented “colonial” Western powers by sponsoring militant bomb-makers from the IRA to the PLO and then embraced the likes of Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi in return for investment in Libya’s extensive oil and gas fields.
There was no shortage of fighters willing to claim they saw Gaddafi, who long vowed to die in battle, cringing below ground, like Saddam eight years ago, and pleading for his life.
One description, pieced together from various sources, suggests Gaddafi tried to break out of his final redoubt at dawn in a convoy of vehicles after weeks of dogged resistance.
However, he was stopped by a French air strike and captured, possibly some hours later, after gun battles with NTC fighters who found him hiding in a drainage culvert.
NATO said its warplanes fired on a convoy near Sirte about 8:30 a.m. (0630 GMT), striking two military vehicles in the group, but could not confirm that Gaddafi had been a passenger. France later said its jets had halted the convoy.