Tripoli: Libyans exploded in excitement on Thursday afternoon at reports that Muammar Gaddafi had been captured in his home town of Sirte, where rebels have fought a grueling battle for weeks to crush his remaining armed loyalists.
As television broke on news that Sirt had finally fallen to the rebel forces, gunfire begun resounding around the capital. About 20 minutes later came the news, from a rebel commander in Sirte, that Gaddafi had been captured hiding in a hole in the coastal city, Gaddafi's home town about 230 miles east along the Mediterranean. In this city of two million people, thousands of people poured into the streets, firing guns in the air. The ships in Tripoli harbor blared their horns for more than an hour, and the mosques played prayers praising Allah, over the deafening noise of car horns. Crowds of people converged on the seafront to move towards Martyrs Square in the heart of the capital, where only two months ago, Gaddafi's supporters held continual demonstrations in support of the dictatorship.
By 2 p.m. Tripoli time, there was no authoritative confirmation of Gaddafi's capture or death. Indeed, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim government of Libya, insisted that the Colonel was dead, that they would have preferred him alive and brought to trial but that one "cannot go against God's will." The NTC has been notoriously inaccurate in the past about the capture and death of Gaddafi kin. Nevertheless, if Gaddafi has indeed been run to ground, Oct 20 will be one of the most historic moments of Libya's history, the final demise of a 42-year dictator who transformed this oil-rich nation into a terrifying authoritarian state even as he modernized what had been a largely illiterate desert country into a regional economic force.
Exactly two months have passed since rebel forces stormed Tripoli and drove Gaddafi and his family from power. Yet while the rebels' NTC quickly assumed control over the capital, Gaddafi and his hugely powerful son Saif al-Islam vanished, slipping out of the city while Tripoli was still in turmoil. The International Criminal Court has indicted both men for crimes against humanity, for allegedly ordering the killing of unarmed civilians before the rebel force took up arms in mid-February.
In the meantime, a well-armed group of loyalists in Sirt have held out, waging a grueling war of attrition against the rebel forces — even though the rest of the country had fallen to Gaddafi's foes. With the war dragging on, NTC officials were increasingly hampered in administering their new country. Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told journalists on Wednesday evening that Libya could "move from a national struggle to chaos." He said he was particularly concerned about the convoys of heavy weaponry which slipped into the neighboring country of Niger in August, after Tripoli fell.
The rebels have said for weeks that they will be able to declare the war over when Sirte — the last Gaddafi stronghold — falls. And if indeed they have captured or killed Gaddafi himself, Libyan officials say, it will allow the country to finally move beyond the revolution, and begin rebuilding the country after months of war. "It means we will have a transitional government, then we will have an election in a few months," Mahmoud Shammam, the NTC's head of media, told the BBC on Thursday.
If Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam are captured and alive, UN officials and some Western governments have said they would expect NTC officials to hand the two men over for trial in The Hague, where the ICC is based. But it is clear from interviews around Tripoli that many Libyans will be loath to do that. In Martyrs Square — formerly Green Square — on Wednesday, a group of young Libyans, some of them in combat fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov rifles, said they hoped Gaddafi would be killed if he was found in Sirte. "We hope they bring him to Martyrs Square and shoot him," said one young man. Shammam told the BBC on Thursday that the NTC hoped to "give him a fair trial, as he never gave his own people. We want very much to try him in Libya," he said. "We will do everything we can to have him face justice in Libya."
First Published: Thursday, October 20, 2011, 21:22