MISRATA, (Reuters) – Muammar Gaddafi’s body lay in an old meat store on Friday as arguments over a burial, and his killing after being captured, dogged efforts by Libya’s new leaders to make a formal start on a new era of democracy.
With a bullet wound visible through the familiar curly hair, the corpse shown to Reuters in Misrata bore other marks of the violent end to a violent life that was being broadcast to the world in snatches of grainy, gory cellphone video.
The interim prime minister offered a tale of “crossfire” to explain the fallen strongman’s death after he was dragged, very much alive, from a highway drainage culvert. But with footage showing him being beaten, while demanding legal rights, to the sound of gunfire, many assume he was simply summarily shot.
Gaddafi’s wife, Aisha, who found refuge in neighboring Algeria while her husband and several sons kept their word to fight to the death, demanded an inquiry from the United Nations. Its human rights arm said one was merited.
Controversy over the final moments of a man who once held the world in thrall with a mixture of eccentricity and thuggery raised questions about the ability of Libya’s National Transitional Council to control the men with guns, as well as discomfort for Western allies about respect for human rights among those who claimed to be fighting for just those ideals.
The body appeared to be the latest object of wrangling among the factions of fighters who overthrew him — along with control of weapons, of ministries and of Libya’s oil wealth.
Libyans, and the Western allies who backed their revolt that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule two months ago, have indicated their impatience to begin what the United States declared was a democratic “new era.”
But regional and other rivalries were holding up the disposal of the corpse of Gaddafi, who was seized by fighters on Thursday, and a formal declaration of Libya’s “liberation.”
A failure to find Gaddafi’s son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, left another loose end after Thursday’s surprise climax to eight months of war, when the 69-year-old fugitive was discovered hiding in a drainage culvert under a roadway.
NATO jets had halted a bid by a large armed convoy to break out of his last redoubt in his hometown of Sirte.
Addul-Salam Eleiwa, a commander of the Misrata fighters who brought Gaddafi’s body to the city whose resistance made it a symbol of courage for the rebels, said it would be treated with due respect and buried soon.
Showing the corpse to Reuters, he reflected Muslim custom to inter remains within the day. “He will get his right, like any Muslim. His body will be washed and treated with dignity. I expect he will be buried in a Muslim cemetery within 24 hours.”
The body lay on a mattress in a cold storage plant formerly used for meat and other produce in Misrata’s old market area.
A senior military commander for the National Transitional Council said members of Gaddafi’s Gaddadfa tribe were talking to the fighters to discuss the possibility of taking on the task of burying him — a procedure that would follow a tradition also recognized when Saddam Hussein was hanged in Iraq.
However, unlike Saddam the NTC hoped that Gaddafi, his son Mo’tassim and others of his entourage could be buried in secret, to prevent the site becoming a place of pilgrimage.
A senior official of the NTC told Reuters there was still division in the upper reaches of the interim authority over where Gaddafi’s final resting place should be. “They are not agreeing on the place of burial. Under Islam he should have been buried quickly but they have to reach an agreement whether he is to be buried in Misrata, Sirte, or somewhere else,” he said.
Interim Oil Minister Ali Tarhouni told Reuters he was urging colleagues to leave the body in cold storage for some days to help dispel any doubts that Gaddafi was indeed dead.
Saif al-Islam was reported by one senior official of the interim government to have escaped the clan’s final showdown in Sirte and to be heading across the Sahara for Niger, which has given refuge to another son and other senior aides.
The United Nations human rights office called for a full investigation into the death of Muammar Gaddafi and voiced concerns that he may have been executed.
Fighters from Misrata, Libya’s third city, have been among the most prominent groups pushing for a bigger say in government.
A declaration of liberation would also, under present plans, formalize a move of the government from Benghazi, the second city and home of the rebellion, in the far east, to Tripoli, the capital, in the west.
But NTC officials were still unclear as to whether the declaration itself would be made in Benghazi or Tripoli.
Long-standing regional rivalries in a country only put together under Italian colonial rule in the 1930s are part of a complex of tribal, ethnic and other divisions which Gaddafi exploited at times to control the thinly populated country of six million and its substantial oil and gas resources.
As NATO powers prepared to wind down their air support mission which helped topple Gaddafi from Tripoli two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said his death marked the start of a “new era.”
Oil minister Tarhouni told Reuters that he was hoping he might be named prime minister next week as the new phase of transition to democracy begins. A period of eight months that had been hoped for as a schedule for a new constitution might be optimistic, however, Tarhouni added.
Confusion over exactly how Gaddafi died illustrates the challenge Libyans face to summon order out of the armed chaos that is the legacy of eight months of conflict.
The killing or capture of senior aides, including possibly two sons, as an armored convoy braved NATO air strikes in a desperate bid to break out of Sirte, may ease fears that diehards could regroup — though cellphone video, apparently of Gaddafi alive and being beaten, may inflame his sympathizers.
As news of Gaddafi’s demise spread, people poured into the streets in jubilation. Joyous fighters fired their weapons in the air, shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
Others wrote graffiti on the parapets of the highway outside Sirte. One said simply: “Gaddafi was captured here.”
Clinton, on a visit to Afghanistan, received first news of Gaddafi’s capture in a phone message. “Wow,” she exclaimed, looking into a smart phone handed to her by an aide in Kabul.
Speaking in Islamabad on Friday, Clinton said Gaddafi’s death marked the start of a “new era” for the Libyan people.
Nabil Elaraby, chief of the Arab League which in March had given NATO actions a regional seal of approval when it backed a no-fly zone over Libya targeted at Gaddafi forces, called for unity.
Libyans should “overcome the wounds of the past, look toward the future away from sentiments of hatred and revenge,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported him as saying.
China — which had strained relations with the NTC after Beijing’s frosty reaction to NATO-led airstrikes and attempts by Chinese firms to sell Gaddafi weapons, but which now has better ties — echoed calls for unity. It said there was a need for “an inclusive political process.”
NATO, keen to portray the victory as that of the Libyans themselves, said it would wind down its military mission.
“KEEP HIM ALIVE”
The circumstances of the death of Gaddafi, who had vowed to go down fighting, remained obscure. Jerky video showed a man of Gaddafi’s appearance, bloodied and staggering under blows from armed men, apparently NTC fighters.
The brief footage showed him being hauled by his hair from the hood of a truck. To the shouts of someone saying “Keep him alive,” he disappears from view and gunshots ring out.
“While he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him,” a senior source in the NTC told Reuters. “He might have been resisting.”
The leader of Gaddafi’s personal bodyguards said the former strongman had survived an airstrike on his convoy. “I was with Gaddafi and Abu Bakr Younis Jabr (head of Gaddafi’s army) and about four volunteer soldiers,” Mansour Daou told al Arabiya television. He said he had not witnessed the final moments of his leader because he had fallen unconscious from a wound.
The mystery of Gaddafi’s final hours befitted a man who retained an aura of mystery in the desert down the decades as he first tormented Western powers by sponsoring militant bomb-makers from the IRA to the PLO and then embraced Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi in return for investment in Libya’s oil and gas fields.
Among those disappointed by his death were advocates of the International Criminal Court, which had hoped to try him for crimes against humanity, and relatives of those who died in the Lockerbie airliner bombing, still looking for answers more than two decades after a presumed Libyan bomb down the jumbo jet.