Nato and the SAS helped rebels drive hunted leader into endgame in a desert drain
Utterly ravaged by months of bombardments, Sirte was a skeleton of a city - a place without food, water or light; a city without citizens. Its streets were turned into rivers by burst pipes, as fighters battled through waist-high swathes of mud brown water, street by bloody street.
But as the sun rose over the shell of Sirte on Thursday, it was immediately apparent that something had changed.
I had arrived at the rebel position in the western suburb of Zafran in anticipation of another massed assault into District Two - the final pocket where Gaddafi loyalists had been holding out. Rebels from Misurata had told me the day before to be ready early to witness a home-made armoured battering ram, and their few tanks spearhead what they boasted would be a decisive thrust into the remaining bastion of defenders.
Little did we know, at that point, that Gaddafi had also decided that it was time for the endgame.
The embattled leader had been forced to retreat to an area 1000 yards by 500 yards, and was desperately moving from house to house, trying to evade capture.
Seeing the noose tighten to strangulation point, he had ordered his men on Wednesday night to pack a convoy of 75 vehicles in preparation for a move towards Wadi Jarif, 25 miles away.
"We decided to leave Sirte and go to Jarif because it had become unsafe," said Mansour Daou, Gaddafi's cousin and bodyguard. The Colonel, he said, was "tense, but not afraid".
But Gaddafi, like us, was unaware of the chain reaction which he had sparked by making that dash for freedom.
More than 6,000 miles away, deep in the lunar landscape of the Nevada desert, American specialists trained to their computer screens spotted unusual activity at around 7.30am in District Two. From their windowless bunker, lit by constantly flickering computer screens, the analysts directed their unmanned Predator drones to zoom in on the convoy as it picked up speed and headed west. Nato's eyes were suddenly trained on Gaddafi's convoy.
Yet at that moment, I was ignorant of that, and caught up in the midst of a chaotic scene at the crossroads by a scarred television station building, which was the planned launch point for the offensive into District Two.
The battle was taking an unexpected turn. At 8am the air was thick with the crackle of bullets and shots were hitting the street corner - from directions which had been cleared of loyalists for days. In the street beside the TV station - which should have been protected from loyalist marksmen toward the east - fighters were running bent double and crouching in the doorways of burnt-out houses as they tried to assess who was shooting at them.
"The plan has changed. Some loyalists have broken out overnight," one young fighter told me hurriedly.
"They have got around the back of us."
Unknown to us then - and what would not become clear for hours afterwards - was that among those who had broken out a few hundred yards from us was none other than Col Muammar Gaddafi. The confusion I was witnessing was not another small skirmish, but the final chaotic moments of the Libyan despot's rule.
He and his inner circle had tried to punch westward out of the shattered city into open countryside in a column of vehicles.
But it was a gamble that ultimately would not allow him to escape the fate suffered by so many of his opponents during his 42 years of rule.
High above Sirte the heavily-armed American USMQ1 Predator drones, which are piloted by satellite link and can provide surveillance or fire missiles in all weather, day and night, had been circling.
The aircraft, which can remain "on station" for up to 18 hours, were being remotely flown from Creech air force base in Nevada. One of the predator pilots had now received permission to attack the fleeing convoy.
Around 40 miles off the Libyan coast a Nato AWAC early-warning surveillance aircraft, flying over the Mediterranean, took control of the battle and warned two French jets that a loyalist convoy was attempting to leave Sirte.
As the convoy sped west, a Hellfire missile was fired from the Predator and destroyed the first vehicle in the convoy.
By now, the NTC troops had realised that the loyalists were escaping and a small number of lightly armed rebels began to give chase.
To me it seemed like a wild, chaotic situation. But we now know that it had, in fact, been foreseen by the British SAS and their special forces allies, who were advising the NTC forces.
British military sources have told The Sunday Telegraph that small teams of SAS soldiers on the ground in Sirte, armed but under strict orders not to get involved, had warned them throughout the siege to be alert to the fleeing of loyalists.
Assisted by other special forces - in particular the Qataris, with whom the SAS have a long relationship dating back 20 years - the SAS tried to impress on the Libyans the need to cover all escape routes.
But despite the advice, the breakout seems to have taken the rebels on the Zafran front completely by surprise.
In the previous two weeks I had repeatedly seen the militiamen fail to hold forward positions at night as they fell back to their encampments. Again and again loyalists had used cover of darkness to surprise the militiamen and manoeuvre into new firing positions.
Once more their surveillance was lax, and one rebel fighter confessed to me that in the early hours of Thursday they had failed to keep proper watch on the western front and they were surprised by the convoy.
A Gaddafi loyalist, Jibril Abu Shnaf, who had travelled in the convoy and was later captured, told how they took advantage of this lack of co-ordination.
"I was cooking for the other guys, when all of a sudden they came in and said: 'Come on, we're leaving,'" he explained.
"I got in a civilian car and joined the end of the convoy. We tried to escape along the coast road. But we came under heavy fire, so we tried another way."
The second attempt proved successful and the convoy left the demolished houses of Sirte, firing at rebel positions as it sped into the surrounding farmland.
A senior defence source has told The Sunday Telegraph that at this point the SAS urged the NTC leaders to move their troops to exits points across the city and close their stranglehold.
After the Hellfire missile struck its target, the convoy changed direction, possibly hoping to avoid a further strike, before heading west again. It had begun to fracture into several different groups of vehicles.
The French jets were also given permission to join the attack.
By now a group of 20 vehicles in the convoy had reached a point around three miles west of the city. The shattered streets had been left behind, and the convoy had halted next to a walled electricity sub station, in arid farmland dotted with breeze block compounds and trees.
Just then, the French pilot began his bombing run, seconds later releasing two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, into the centre of the convoy.
The bombs unleashed massive force. Arriving at the site, a few hours later, their devastating power was clear to see: at least a dozen vehicles were shredded and burned out, while I counted more than 25 bodies, some lying twisted and charred inside the vehicles and others lying in clumps nearby.
The air strike marked the end of any attempt at an ordered retreat and the convoy's remnants scattered.
Mansour Daou, leader of Gaddafi's personal bodyguards, recounted the attack. He said that the survivors had "split into groups and each group went its own way".
The stragglers disappeared into the farmland, some taking refuge in buildings and others continuing to fire on approaching rebels and adding to the confusion.
Col Gaddafi had survived the air strike, but was apparently wounded in the legs. With his companions dead or dispersed, he now had few options.
He and a handful of men, perhaps including the defence minister Abu Bakr Younis, appeared to have made their way 300 yards north from the devastation and taken shelter in a drainage culvert running under a dual carriageway.
Here in concrete pipes just three feet across the final scene would be played out.
Members of the Al Watan revolutionary brigade who had been following the convoy at a distance witnessed the explosion, but at that point still had no idea who was in the vehicles.
Saleem Bakeer, a rebel fighter who said he was among those who came across Gaddafi hiding in the pipes said they had approached on foot.
"One of Gaddafi's men came out waving his rifle in the air and shouting surrender, but as soon as he saw my face he started shooting at me," he said.
"Then I think Gaddafi must have told them to stop. 'My master is here, my master is here', he said, 'Muammar Gaddafi is here and he is wounded'."
"We went in and brought Gaddafi out. He was saying: 'What's wrong? What's wrong? What's going on?'"
The initial astonishment appears to have quickly switched to jubilation, and then rage.
"I don't think that anyone thought he would be there, we all thought that he would be in the south, or maybe across in Niger or Algeria. We were as shocked as he was at first," said Abdullah Hakim Husseini, one of the band of men who found him. "We were so happy when we knew it was him. I thought, 'at last, it's all over'."
Mobile phone footage shows Col Gaddafi alive but weak and bloodied, with blows raining down on him from frenzied fighters. At one point he was hauled onto the bonnet of a pickup truck, then pulled down by his hair. His weighty golden gun, intricately engraved and decorated with the words "The sun will never set on the Al Fattah revolution", was snatched by one of the revolutionaries. His satellite phone was seized, and it was later discovered that he had made one last call to Syria.
Omran el Oweyb, the commander who captured Gaddafi, said that he only managed to stagger ten steps before he fell to the ground.
One rebel was heard screaming in his face: "This is for Misurata, you dog."
Gaddafi - confused, bloodied, stumbling - can be heard to reply, in what could be his last, laughably philosophical words: "Do you know right from wrong?"
What happened in the next minutes is the subject of intense controversy. Sometime in the next hours or minutes he died of a bullet wound to the left temple. The official NTC account says he was caught in crossfire as he was being driven to hospital. "He was already under arrest and he was hit in the crossfire," explained Mahmoud Jalil, the prime minister.
However the ambulance driver who ferried him said Col Gaddafi was already dead when he was loaded into the ambulance, around 500 yards from his point of capture.
One NTC member, who did not want to be named, admitted that this version of events was likely. "They beat him very harshly and then they killed him," he said. "This is a war."
By time I reached the site of his capture, around two hours after he was seized, the bodies of three of his companions still lay at the entrance to the drain.
It was an inglorious end. As I picked through the seafront ruined streets of District Two the following day, there was no sign of a command bunker or fortified compound where he had stayed and directed the defence.
Instead rebels wandering the streets where Col Gaddafi's loyalists had endured a storm of barrage said he had moved from house-to-house and basement to basement. He moved nightly, terrified of surveillance and air strikes from the Nato coalition planes and drones which had supported the rebels since March.
He had good reason for such precautions.
And the drain had already begun to take its place in Libyan history.
"This is the place where the rat Gaddafi was hiding," said one piece of graffiti sprayed onto the concrete.
Fighters flashing raising v-salutes, posed for photos alongside friends they had fought alongside for months.
"I have stopped counting how many friends I have lost. Too, too many," said Mohammad Bashir, a 32-year-old telecoms engineer from Tripoli.
"We never doubted it for a second, you know, though. These freedom fighters cannot be stopped. We were right and he was wrong."
[Source: By Ben Farmer, Sirte, The Telegraph, London, 22Oct11]
|This document has been published on 30Oct11 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|