This Day (Lagos)

27 October 2011

Libya: Gaddafi's Last Stand in Sirte

Sirte is utterly destroyed. In just a few weeks this pristine show town, the birthplace and beneficiary of Colonel Gaddafi's largesse, has been reduced to rubble.

A tsunami of fighting has swept this seaside town away. The few returnees to the battlefield are picking through the rubble looking for anything they can salvage, reports Sky News.

I visited here a few months ago under the control of Col Gaddafi's minders. The people said they would fight to the end in support of the "Brother Leader".

As the rebels advanced they were warned the citizens: give up of face annihilation. True to their word the citizens stood firm and the rebels did as they promised.

For the first time in this revolution a city has been looted or sacked by a medieval style army intent on destruction. Sirte has paid for Misratah, Zawiyah, and Tripoli.

I approached two men taking a refrigerator and a plastic plant from beneath the steel shutters of their shop and loading it onto the back of a pick-up.

"They have left people with nothing on their feet," he told me. "Now go away."

In essence he meant that they have nothing.

He is not wrong. Mile after mile of Sirte has been utterly wiped out. Not a single building was missed. Dozens on the main streets have been looted and burnt, hundreds are in pieces.

A man in a revolutionary baseball cap came towards me and asked to speak. He said he supported the revolution but that the rebels had destroyed the centre of town to teach the people a lesson.

Within moments he was embroiled in a huge argument with rebel soldiers who were listening. Sirte will not forget this in just the same way that places like Misratah will not either. The future will be difficult.

We had driven to Sirte, halfway across the country from Benghazi, to retrace the final steps of Col Gaddafi before his ignominious and shocking end near dual drain pipes on the outskirts of town.

As the rebels closed in on the city, Col Gaddafi and his final bodyguard retreated into an area known as Sector or District Two. This was to be their last stand.

On the back of a pick-up I joined one of the fighters who tracked Col Gaddafi down.

As we drove through the narrow streets of Sector Two that have been smashed to pieces, he pointed to the roofs where snipers pinned them down for days; past buildings where Gaddafi's forces had pre-positioned anti-aircraft guns and artillery pieces to fire at the ground assault; and finally to the villa where he spent his final hours before fleeing.

"He changed houses every night until he came to this one. The next day he fled," Ashraf al Mshayty, my guide, told me.

"Prisoners say that he was very low. So they told him his forces had pushed us back. They lied to him to keep his spirits up," he said.

Inside the destroyed villa we found abandoned uniforms and signs of dinner being cooked and hurriedly left.

According to Mr al Mshayty, Col Gaddafi and his men and women fled the house and got into about 40 cars that divided into two groups.

As they sped off along the highway they indicated to advancing rebels that they would surrender.

"They had white flags and slowed down near our commanders. As they got near they opened up, killing many," al Mshayty said.

But before long they met more fighters and in the ensuing fire fight his convoy fragmented. Col Gaddafi and some did make it to the outskirts of town.

He apparently sent some ahead to check the route out of town. As they pulled up NATO struck from the air.

The bodies of Col Gaddafi's final force lay where they fell. Some are burnt to a crisp in the mangled wreckage of their cars. The air is foul with the stench of rotting bodies.

About 500 yards away victorious fighters sprayed graffiti on the walls of the drain pipes where Col Gaddafi was last seen alive.

Some of them say that he was not found there but was forced inside the pipes by Mistratah Brigade fighters as a symbolic reference to his threat to kills the rats that rose against him.

An investigation into his death is underway but nobody I have spoken seems to care. Col Gaddafi is dead - end of.

But Libya has problems that need to be addressed, for sure. The colonel and his forces carried out horrendous atrocities against his people and the opposing militia brigades have shown little mercy as well.

The search for peace and reconciliation must start soon, just as the nation looks to build itself from the horrors of this war.

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