Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi’s last moments on Thursday were as violent as the uprising that overthrew him.
Dragged from hiding in a drainage pipe, a wounded Gaddafi raised his hands and begged revolutionary fighters: “Don’t kill me, my sons.”
In a cellphone video that went viral on the Internet, the deposed Libyan leader is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a frenzied crowd, seemingly begging for mercy.
He is next seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair. Blood pours down his head, drenching his golden brown khakis, as the crowd shouts: “God is great!”
Gaddafi’s body was shown in later photographs with bullet holes apparently fired into his head at what forensic experts said was close range, raising the possibility that he was executed by anti-Gaddafi fighters.
The official version of events offered by Libya’s new leaders — that Gaddafi was killed in a cross-fire — did not appear to be supported by the photographs and videos that streamed over the Internet all day long, raising questions about the government’s control of the militias in a country that has been divided into competing regions and factions.
The conflicting accounts about how he was killed seemed to reflect an instability that could trouble Libya long after the euphoria fades about the demise of Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years and is the first of the autocrats to be killed in the Arab Spring uprisings.
At the same time, the flood of good news for the former rebelsprompted a collective sigh of relief and quieted talk of rivalries, as strangers congratulated one another in the streets.
For weeks, as the fight for Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and final redoubt in the eight-month conflict, reached a bloody climax, Nato forces and Libyan fighters had watched for an attempt by his armed loyalists to flee and seek safety elsewhere.
Soon after dawn, they did, leaving urban bunkers in the Mediterranean town and heading west, said a senior Western official in Europe knowledgeable about Nato’s operations in Libya.
Around 8:30am local time, a convoy slipped out of a fortified compound in Sirte, the scene of one of the civil war’s bloodiest and longest battles and a city that was on the verge of falling to Gaddafi’s opponents.
Before the convoy had travelled 3 kilometres, Nato officials said, it was set upon by an American Predator drone and a French warplane. With the attack, the convoy “was stopped from progressing as it sought to flee Sirte, but was not destroyed”, French Defence minister Gérard Longuet said.
Only two vehicles in the convoy were hit, neither carrying Gaddafi, a Western official said. But the rest of the convoy was forced to detour and scatter. Anti-Gaddafi fighters rapidly descended on the scene, telling Reuters they saw people fleeing through some nearby woods and gave pursuit.
A field leader in Sirte, who gave his name to Al Jazeera television as Mohammed al-Laith, said Gaddafi and several bodyguards fled from a Jeep in the convoy and dived into a large drainage pipe.
After clashes ensued, Gaddafi emerged, appeling to the fighters outside: “What do you want? Don’t kill me, my sons,” according to a fighter who was among those who captured him.
The video on Al Jazeera shows Gaddafi wounded, but clearly alive. The network quoted a fighter saying that he had begged for help. “Show me mercy!” he was said to have cried. There was little of that, in the video at least. One fighter is seen pulling his hair, as others beat his limp body.
Two fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera said someone had struck his head with a gun butt. Omran Shaaban, 21, a Misrata fighter who claimed to have been the first, along with a friend, to find Gaddafi, said he was already wounded in the head and chest and bleeding in the drainage pipe and then whisked away to an ambulance.
Precisely how he died after that, Shaaban said, was unclear. By all accounts, Gaddafi was then taken in an ambulance to Misrata, a coastal town to the west that fought perhaps the most ferocious battle against Gaddafi’s government and whose fighters still celebrate their reputation for martial prowess.
Holly Pickett, a freelance photojournalist working in Sirte, reported in a Twitter feed that she had seen Gaddafi’s body in an ambulance headed for Misrata, along with 10 fighters inside with him. It was unclear from her posts whether he was dead.
“From the side door, I could see a bare chest with bullet wounds and a bloody hand. He was wearing gold-coloured pants,” she said in one post.
Within an hour of the news of Gaddafi’s death, Libyans were celebrating. “We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Mahmoud Jibril, the Prime Minister of the Transitional National Council (TNC), the interim government, said. He was speaking at 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 had some other wish”.
At least one of Gaddafi’s feared sons, Muatassim, was also killed on Thursday, Libyan officials said, and there were unconfirmed reports that another, Seif al-Islam, had been captured or wounded.
No videos or photos appeared to show Gaddafi alive after the ambulance spirited him away from Sirte, though there was a debate over who exactly was responsible for his death. Nato never claimed the airstrike killed him, and some officials of the TNC made clear he died at their own hands.
A reporter accompanying Ali Tarhouni, the interim government’s Oil and Finance minister, who visited Misrata to view the body, saw Gaddafi splayed out on a mattress in the reception room of a private home, shirtless, with bullet wounds in the chest and temple and blood on his arms and hair.
News agencies quoted a spokesman for the council in Benghazi as saying a doctor had examined Gaddafi’s corpse in Misrata and found he had been shot in the head and abdomen.
The shot to the head was visible in photos that followed. The Zimbabwean government yesterday condemned the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by transitional forces.
‘Zimbabwe just cannot accept what has happened in that African country as a legitimate way of correcting systems on the African continent,’ said Webster Shamu, minister of information and government spokesperson, in a statement.