Mystery of Qaddafi’s Whereabouts Looms Large in Conflict’s Endgame

He has exalted himself as the “brother leader” of Libya, the dean of Arab rulers and the king of kings of Africa. On Monday, though, he was the autocrat who could not be found.

For all his bluster and bombast over the past four decades as Libya’s quirky ruler, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was mysteriously and conspicuously absent as forces of the six-month-old Libya rebellion encircled what they believed to be his ultimate Tripoli hideout, the Bab al-Azizya compound.

Even the leader of the rebel movement, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, admitted he did not know if Colonel Qaddafi was holed up inside — or somewhere else in Libya, or another country. He is wanted not only by the rebels but by the International Criminal Court, which in June issued a warrant for his arrest.

Colonel Qaddafi, 69, has not been seen in public for more than two months. His once prolonged televised diatribes have stopped. The only indications that he may be in the compound have been the arrests of three of his sons in Tripoli as well as a series of fuzzy audio recordings — the most recent of them Sunday night — promising he will not leave Libya and exhorting Libyans to spill their blood for him to the end.

Rumors have swirled in Libya and elsewhere that he may have secretly slipped out of Tripoli before the rebel movement’s surprisingly speedy invasion of the city over the weekend.

South Africa’s Foreign Ministry on Monday publicly refuted speculation that it had sent an airplane to fetch Colonel Qaddafi and his family. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister, told reporters in Johannesburg that the government had sent aircraft only to evacuate the staff of its embassy.

“I am amazed at any insinuation of South Africa aiding anyone,” she said when asked if South Africa was trying to help Colonel Qaddafi. “We know for sure he will not come here.”

Rumors over the weekend that Colonel Qaddafi may have fled to asylum in Venezuela also proved false.

Abdel Moneim Al-Houni, the Libyan representative in Egypt, who proclaimed his allegiance to the rebels on Monday, told reporters in Cairo that the rebels in Tripoli admittedly do not have a firm grasp on Colonel Qaddafi’s whereabouts. However, he said, “We believe that his family, his children and grandchildren are there and we expect him to be there with them hiding in Tripoli.”

He added that there were reports the colonel may have fled to the Mediterranean city of Surt, his tribal home, where support for him is said to remain strong. That possibility suggested an outcome to the Libya conflict in which the colonel and his kin would be confined in some sort of internal exile.

The prime ministers of France and Britain, which have managed the NATO air campaign that assisted the Libyan rebels, both said on Monday that they could not confirm Colonel Qaddafi’s location.

In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman, Col. David Lapan, said the Pentagon believed that Col. Qaddafi was still in Libya. “We do not have information that he’s left the country,” he told reporters.

Colonel Qaddafi’s last public appearance was on June 12, when he was photographed playing chess in Tripoli with the visiting president of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, an equally eccentric if less powerful personality from Russia who claims to communicate with aliens from outer space.

Stephen Farrell contributed reporting from Cairo.

This article, “Mystery of Qaddafi's Whereabouts Looms Large in Conflict's Endgame,” originally appeared at The New York Times.
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