Tyrant’s desperate dash

2011-10-24 10:22

In the end Muammar Gaddafi’s life came a full circle, ending at the hands of revolutionary fighters in Sirte, the city of his birth and the one place in Libya he called home.

And his capture solved the mystery that bedevilled rebel fighters surrounding the city – just why did the defenders of Sirte fight so hard, and for so long?

The city, built on the site of the ancient Phoenician settlement of Macomedes-Euphranta, held out for a full two months after the fall of Tripoli to rebel forces.

Reporting from the rebel siege lines around Sirte in recent weeks, the fury of its defenders was a source of bafflement to the rebel fighters cowering under the rocket bombardments.

They knew that the 69-year-old dictator’s son, Moatasim, was inside – one general even showed me his satellite-phone’s number, though declined to allow me to copy it down. None guessed that Muammar was there too.

But as is now clear, Moatasim, who had been trying and failing to negotiate an escape, was protecting his father.

Conventional wisdom among the rebels held that Gaddafi was either abroad, perhaps among his relatives who fled south to Niger and west to Algeria.

Or perhaps even deep in the desert of a country of sandy wilderness covering an area four times the size of Iraq.

It is now clear that even at that late stage, Gaddafi and his entourage were able to slip away, presumably along the only road left open, a highway that led 145km south to Beni Walid.

From Beni Walid, itself overrun by rebels this week, he would have had to drive southwest to Waddan, the site of Libya’s remaining stocks of chemical weapons, a town that lies 241km due south of Sirte.

From there, logic would dictate that he keep moving south to keep ahead of rebel advances.

Instead, he headed north.

The reason why he chose to drive back to the coast at Sirte, even as opposition forces closed in on the town from east and west, will likely never be known.

He, and Moatasim, must have been aware they were heading into a trap from which there could be no escape.

Perhaps he felt safe there: when Gaddafi, as a young army officer, deposed the king in a bloodless coup in 1969, he began to elevate his humble birthplace into a handsome city.

Bear in mind he was born there in a Bedouin tent.

So perhaps he felt safe among his own people, or anyway safer than taking his chances out in the empty desert, where it would have been only a matter of time before he was rounded up by rebel forces fanning out across Libya.

Perhaps tyrants at bay are programmed with a homing instinct. Hitler chose to stay in Berlin when he could have fled south to Bavaria; while Saddam Hussein chose to hide in a hole in the ground in Tikrit, close to his own birthplace.

For two hard months, Sirte’s defenders repaid that love: he had bankrolled the town and in return they forced the rebels attacking them to fight for the place street by street.

But the result was never in doubt. Thousands of rebel troops, mustered from Misrata, rather than from the National Transitional Council’s less effective but grandly named national army, eventually pushed loyalist forces into an area less than 700m across.

And it was from here that, somehow mustering 80 vehicles, he made his final dash for freedom.

It was a hopeless effort – if the French Nato jets had not hit the convoy, the large rebel forces surrounding the city would surely have done so.

» Stephen reports from Libya for The Guardian

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