SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Disturbing images of a blood-stained and shaken Muammar Gaddafi being dragged around by angry fighters quickly circulated around the world after the Libyan dictator’s dramatic death near his home town of Sirte.
The exact circumstances of his demise are still unclear with conflicting accounts of his death. But the footage of the last chaotic moments of Gaddafi’s life offered some clues into what happened.
Gaddafi was still alive when he was captured near Sirte. In the video, filmed by a bystander in the crowd and later aired on television, Gaddafi is shown dazed and wounded being dragged off a vehicle’s bonnet and pulled to the ground by his hair.
“Keep him alive, keep him alive!” someone shouts. Gaddafi then goes out of view and gunshots ring out.
“They captured him alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him,” one senior source in the NTC told Reuters. “He might have been resisting.”
In what appeared to contradict the events depicted in the video, Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council said Gaddafi was killed when a gunfight broke out after his capture between his supporters and government fighters. He died from a bullet wound to the head, the prime minister said.
The NTC said no order had been given to kill him.
Gaddafi called the rebels who rose up against his 42 years of one-man rule “rats,” but in the end it appeared that 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.
On the ground, government fighters described scenes of carnage as they told stories of Gaddafi’s final hours.
Shortly before dawn prayers, Gaddafi, surrounded by a few dozen loyal bodyguards and accompanied by the head of his now non-existent army Abu Bakr Younis Jabr, broke out of the two-month siege of Sirte and made a break for the west.
They did not get far.
France said its aircraft struck military vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces near Sirte at about 8:30 a.m. (0630 GMT), but said it was unsure whether the strikes had killed Gaddafi. A NATO official said the convoy was hit either by a French plane or a U.S. Predator drone.
Two miles west of Sirte, 15 pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns lay burned out, smashed and smoldering next to an electricity substation 20 meters from the main road.
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.
There was no bomb crater, indicating the strike may have been carried out by a jet fighter.
Inside 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. Some 50 bodies in all.
Mansour Daou, leader of Gaddafi’s personal bodyguards, was with the former strongman shortly before his end. He told al Arabiya television that after the air strike the survivors had “split into groups and each group went its own way.”
“I was with Gaddafi and Abu Bakr Younis Jabr and about four volunteer soldiers.” Daou said he had not witnessed his leader’s death because he had fallen unconscious after being wounded in the back by a shell explosion.
Fighters on the ground said Gaddafi and a handful of his men appeared to have run through a stand of trees and taken refuge in the two drainage pipes.
“At first we fired at them with anti-aircraft guns, but it was no use,” said Salem Bakeer, while being feted by his comrades near the road. “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.
Other government fighters who said they took part in Gaddafi’s capture, separately confirmed Bakeer’s version of events, though one said the man who ruled Libya for 42 years 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.
There were also other versions of events. NTC official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters Gaddafi had been finally cornered in a compound in Sirte after hours of fighting, and wounded in a gun battle with NTC forces.
He said Gaddafi kept repeating “What is the matter? What’s going on? What do you want?” and resisted as NTC fighters seized him. He added that Gaddafi died of his wounds as he was being transported in an ambulance.
“He was bleeding from his stomach. It took a long time to transport him. He bled to death (in the ambulance),” he said.
Another NTC official, speaking to Reuters anonymously, gave a violent account of Gaddafi’s death: “They (NTC fighters) beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war.”
Some video footage showed what appeared to be Gaddafi’s lifeless body being loaded into an ambulance in Sirte.
One of the fighters who said he took part in the capture brandished a heavily engraved golden pistol he said he had taken from Gaddafi.
Fallen electricity cables partially covered the entrance to the pipes and the bodies of three men, apparently Gaddafi bodyguards lay at the entrance to one end, 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. NTC officials later announced he was 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 Sirte and Samia Nakhoul in Amman; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Matthew Jones