SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi made his final dash for freedom shortly before dawn prayers. Libya’s ousted leader, a few dozen loyal bodyguards and the head of his now non-existent army Abu Bakr Younis Jabr, broke out of the two-month siege of his home town Sirte and, forming a convoy of six dozen vehicles, raced through the outskirts to the west.
They did not get far.
French aircraft struck military vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces near Sirte at about 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. ET), said officials.
Images of the drama that followed were soon whizzing around the globe. Footage of a bloodstained and shaken Gaddafi dragged by angry fighters cuts away before what could have been the inglorious end, leaving open the question of how exactly the dictator died.
Interviews conducted separately with those who say they were present build up a picture of Gaddafi’s final hours, and together with the footage, give clues about his last stand and demise.
Gaddafi was still alive when he was captured outside Sirte.
But a succession of shaky mobile phone videos, filmed by government fighters, show that very soon after his capture Gaddafi already had blood streaming down the side of his face and onto his scarf and shirt from a wound close to his left ear.
Later he is hauled onto the bonnet of a Toyota pick-up truck and held in a sitting position by the scruff of his shirt.
Looking dazed with blood now streaming down the left of his face, Gaddafi can be heard saying “God forbids this” several times as slaps from the crowd rain down on his head.
“This is for Misrata, you dog,” said one man slapping him. The unit which captured Gaddafi was from Misrata, a city that suffered widespread destruction in a lengthy siege after its citizens rose up against 42 years of one-man rule.
“Do you know right from wrong?” Gaddafi says.
“Shut up you dog,” someone replies as more blows rain down.
Mahmoud Hamada, a fighter clearly recognizable from the films as being there at the time, said Gaddafi was already barely able to walk when he was captured.
Hamada said he and others hauled the former despot onto the front of the truck to get him through the crush of fighters to a waiting ambulance some 500 meters (yards) away.
One video shows Gaddafi being heaved off the bonnet of the truck and dragged toward a car, then pulled down by his hair. “Keep him alive, keep him alive!” someone shouts.
But another man in the crowd lets out a high-pitched hysterical scream. Gaddafi then goes out of view and gunshots ring out. Hamada said he did not see Gaddafi dragged to the ground and said the ousted leader was in a bad way, but alive when he was put into the waiting ambulance and it drove away.
“They captured him alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him,” one senior National Transitional Council source told Reuters. “He might have been resisting.”
In what appeared to contradict the events in the video, Libya’s ruling NTC said Gaddafi was shot in the head in crossfire between government troops and his own supporters while being taken away in the ambulance. He died from the wound minutes before reaching hospital, the prime minister said, but no order had been given to kill him.
But the ambulance driver, Ali Jaghdoun, said Gaddafi was already dead when he picked him up and he then drove the body to the city of Misrata. “I didn’t try to revive him because he was already dead,” Jaghdoun said.
That was borne out by video footage which showed what appeared to be Gaddafi’s lifeless corpse being loaded into an ambulance in Sirte.
There was also no damage to Jaghdoun’s ambulance.
A Reuters witness who saw Gaddafi’s body in Misrata on Friday said it bore a bullet hole on the left side of the head, as well as a large bruise on one side and scratch marks.
There is a possibility that Gaddafi may have received the head wound before or very soon after his capture in a drainage pipe on the outskirts of Sirte and died later of that wound.
Gaddafi called the rebels who rose up against his autocratic rule “rats,” but in the end it was he who was captured cowering in a drainage pipe full of rubbish and filth.
“He called us rats, but look where we found him,” said Ahmed Al Sahati, a 27-year-old government fighter, standing next to two stinking drainage pipes under a six-lane highway near Sirte.
Two miles west of Sirte, there were three clusters of cars and pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns burned out, smashed and smoldering — one group of 11 vehicles next to an electricity substation, three cars in a field and another cluster of seven pick-ups in another field.
They had clearly been hit by a force far beyond anything the motley army the former rebels has assembled during eight months of revolt to overthrow the once feared leader.
Inside some of the trucks still in their seats sat the charred skeletal remains of drivers and passengers killed instantly by the strike. Other bodies lay mutilated and contorted, strewn across the grass.
There were 95 bodies in all, many of them black Africans.
Less than half were burned alive in the vehicles. Others appeared to have been killed, some of them cut in two, by heavy caliber guns from either an aircraft or from ground fire. Others appeared to have been killed by fragmentation wounds, possibly from exploding rockets and ammunition in the pick-ups.
Government fighter Ahmed al-Masalati from Misrata said he was there. He said Gaddafi’s convoy escaped at 6:30 am and went around a roundabout and came under fire from government forces.
“They were trapped in these positions,” he said, pointing to the field. “At 8:15 a NATO jet came in, a Mirage. It shot at the group of 11 cars then made another pass and shot at other group at the north end who were held up in seven cars.”
That account was confirmed by a Gaddafi prisoner on Friday, Jibril Abu Shnaf, who was captured not far from the convoy.
“I was cooking for the other guys, when all of a sudden they came in and said ‘come on, we’re leaving’. 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,” he told Reuters while in custody in the town of Sirte.
When the air strike hit the convoy had already stopped “but I don’t know why, I was just following the others,” he said. “Then the only thing I saw was dead bodies all around, dust and debris. It went dark,” Shnaf said.
“I saw this guy running,” he said, gesturing toward another prisoner beside him, “and I just followed him. I had no idea Muammar was with us until they (his captors) told us.”
Gaddafi himself escaped the carnage.
Mansour Daou, leader of Gaddafi’s personal bodyguards, was with the ousted leader shortly before he died. He told al Arabiya television that after the air strike the survivors had “split into groups and each group went its own way.”
Gaddafi and a handful of his men appeared to have made their way through a stand of trees and taken refuge in the two drainage pipes under the highway.
But NTC fighters were hot on their tail.
“I was with Gaddafi and Abu Bakr Younis Jabr and about four volunteer soldiers,” Daou said, adding he had not witnessed his leader’s death because he had fallen unconscious after being wounded in the back by a shell explosion.
Government fighter Saleem Bakeer said he was among those who came across Gaddafi hiding in the pipes, each about half a meter high.
Other NTC militiamen who also said they were present and, separately interviewed in different locations, all named each other as also having been at the scene and their stories matched closely. One man had what he said was Gaddafi’s gold-plated pistol.
“At first we fired at them with anti-aircraft guns, but it was no use,” said Bakeer, while being feted by his comrades near the road and the drainage pipes. “Then we went in 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 told Reuters.
“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’,” said Bakeer.
“We went in and brought Gaddafi out. He was saying ‘what’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s going on?’. Then we took him and put him in the car,” Bakeer said.
At the time of his capture, Gaddafi was already wounded with gunshots to his leg and to his back, Bakeer said.
One of the others who said he took part in the capture of the man who ruled Libya for 42 years said Gaddafi was shot and wounded at the last minute by one of his own men.
“One of Muammar Gaddafi’s guards shot him in the chest,” said Omran Jouma Shawan.
Another NTC official, speaking to Reuters anonymously, gave another account of Gaddafi’s violent death: “They (NTC fighters) beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war.”
Where he was captured, fallen electricity cables partially covered the entrance to the drainage pipes and the bodies of three men, apparently Gaddafi bodyguards, lay there, one in shorts probably due to a bandaged wound on his leg.
Four more bodies lay at the other end of the pipes. All black men, one had his brains blown out, another man had been decapitated, his dreadlocked head lying beside his torso.
Army chief Jabr was also captured alive, Bakeer said, but NTC officials later announced he was also dead.
Joyous government fighters fired their weapons in the air, shouted “Allahu Akbar” and posed for pictures. Others wrote graffiti on the concrete parapets of the highway. One said simply: “Gaddafi was captured here.”
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Misrata and Samia Nakhoul in Amman; Writing by Jon Hemming