Amid the scenes of ecstatic celebration by rebels at Moammar Gadhafi’s looted bunker in Tripoli, one obvious mystery remained: where was Col. Gadhafi himself?
There was no sign of the deposed Libyan dictator or his family members in his lavish Bab al-Aziziya compound on Tuesday, even after the rebels had occupied it and torn it apart for hours.
Col. Gadhafi might still be hiding somewhere in Tripoli, in one of his underground bunkers or tunnels, but it’s also possible that he has already fled to a desert hideaway, or to his tribal stronghold of Sirte, which is still under the control of his loyalists.
Yet rather than fleeing, Col. Gadhafi is more likely to seek death as a self-anointed martyr, according to some analysts. “The most likely scenario is that Gadhafi will be killed,” said Roland Paris, an international security expert at the University of Ottawa. “The only indication he’s given thus far is that he intends to fight to the end.”
Even if the Libyan leader is captured by the rebels, there is a distinct possibility that his captors would simply kill him, Mr. Paris said.
Another option for Col. Gadhafi is to seek exile in a friendly country. But this option is rapidly fading. It will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for him to negotiate a deal with another country as Libya inexorably falls under the expanding dominance of the rebels and their NATO allies.
The Libyan skies are fully controlled by NATO, which would be reluctant to allow Col. Gadhafi to fly out of the country, especially since the International Criminal Court has indicted him for crimes against humanity. The NATO member states are signatories to the Rome Statute, which requires them to bring war-crimes suspects to justice, and they would be politically embarrassed if they allow him to evade justice.
“NATO would be subject to considerable criticism if it made the conscious decision not to intercept an aircraft carrying Col. Gadhafi through NATO-controlled airspace,” Mr. Paris said.
The rebels, too, are unlikely to allow Col. Gadhafi to flee the country. Although they had earlier offered him safe passage out of Libya if he surrendered power willingly, they have no need to honour that pledge now. Moreover, the ex-dictator has never signalled any interest in accepting exile, even if he hasn’t waited too late by this point.
Some reports have suggested that Col. Gadhafi might be heading for exile in Zimbabwe, Angola, Venezuela, Russia or Cuba. One report even claimed that a South African airplane is waiting for him in neighbouring Tunisia, ready to whisk him into exile. If he was flown to Russia or Cuba, he could escape prosecution by the International Criminal Court, since those two countries have not signed the Rome Statute.
South Africa has good relations with Col. Gadhafi, who helped finance the now-ruling African National Congress when it was exiled during the apartheid era. He even reportedly provided funds for South African President Jacob Zuma when he faced a rape trial in 2006. And in recent months, Mr. Zuma has shuttled into Tripoli to meet Col. Gadhafi on behalf of the African Union, which has proposed a peace deal to end the conflict.
None of the potential host countries, however, has expressed any interest in offering a haven to the Libyan autocrat. One Zimbabwean official said the reports were “all lies.”
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane insisted this week that South Africa would not offer sanctuary to Col. Gadhafi and has not spoken to him for the past week.
Rather than accept exile or surrender, Col. Gadhafi might prefer to die fighting. “As a showman, he will want to control his end and not be displayed as a living trophy by his enemies,” wrote Oxford historian Mark Almond in a commentary this week.