When Libyan rebels stormed Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, he was nowhere to be found. The hunt for the Libyan dictator may now take them underground.
Suspecting it might come to this, Qaddafi taunted North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies three months ago, saying in a May 13 speech: “I live in a place they cannot reach and where you cannot kill me.”
Rebels broke into the compound in Bab Al Aziziya on Aug. 23 after a day of gun battles, some of them riding black pick-ups with machine guns welded to the back. The fighters were shown in news broadcasts entering the broken gates of the compound and trying to tear down a statue of a golden fist holding a jet, which Qaddafi used as backdrop for speeches and rallies.
Libyans have grown up on tales of an intricate network of air-conditioned 1970s-era secret passages, which were fortified in the aftermath of the 1986 U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli to provide an increasingly paranoid Qaddafi with a safe way out, according to Karim Mezran, a Libyan exile and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.
Search Is On
“Nobody visited these underground bunkers, but the information we got is that he has some tunnels leading from Bab Al Aziziya to some other places like the airport and even Martyrs’ Square,” the former Green Square staging ground for pro-Qaddafi demonstrations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters yesterday in New York. Dabbashi, who now represents the opposition, said the rebels “expect him to have some residences underground.”
While Qaddafi’s whereabouts are still unknown, the rebels said they had achieved “total victory” over him. Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice president of the rebel National Transitional Council, said in an interview that Qaddafi isn’t in the Al Aziziya compound and that rebels will comb the area where they expect to find underground tunnels and corridors.
Rebel units in the opposition stronghold of Misrata, now racing west to support comrades in Tripoli, say their forces in the capital have already begun searching the city’s drainage system.
Qaddafi said he has managed to slip through the streets of Tripoli unnoticed to see for himself what is happening, Al Arabiya TV reported, citing a recording of comments broadcast today by a local radio station. He called on his supporters to “cleanse” the city of “rats.”
Other dictators who took refuge in various forms of underground labyrinths include Adolf Hitler and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu spent much of his rule constructing tunnels to all parts of Bucharest so he could slip away via the suburbs in the event of a popular uprising, though he never used them. Besieged inside the communist party headquarters shortly before Christmas 1990, Ceausescu fled the capital by helicopter and was arrested when it ran out of fuel and landed in a field.
Former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Salam Jalloud, once one of Qaddafi’s closest associates, told Italian television RaiTre on Aug. 21 that Qaddafi will fight to the very end, though he won’t kill himself like Hitler. After the 1973 military coup, Chilean President Salvador Allende committed suicide with a gun.
“I can envisage him more of a Saddam Hussein than a Salvador Allende,” Ronald Bruce St. John, author of 14 books on Libya, said by telephone from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I can see him in a spider hole somewhere but not with an AK-47. I think he is probably insane. He is totally detached from reality.”
In December 2003, nine months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Hussein was finally caught in a hole next to farm buildings in his hometown of Tikrit. In 2006, he was led to the gallows by masked men and hanged in Baghdad.
Qaddafi’s Bab Al Aziziya underground complex has several entrances, including one that his son, Saif al-Islam, has used to drive in and out. It also may have a tunnel that connects the compound to Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, where foreign journalists were staying during this year’s conflict and where Saif al-Islam re-emerged this week after reports he had been captured, Mezran said.
The storming of the compound came after three days of battles between rebels and Qaddafi forces inside the capital. The rebels mounted a three-pronged attack on Tripoli over the weekend, ending weeks of stalemate in the sixth-month conflict.
The bunker discovered by rebels underneath Qaddafi’s villa in the mountain town of Bayda may give a clue what the tunnels in Tripoli might be like.
According to a report and photos in the Daily Mail newspaper in February, the bunker had three nine-inch-thick blast doors and led to a massage room, seven bedrooms, a kitchen and caverns full of equipment. Passageways with power generators and an air-filtration system led to an escape shaft in the countryside.
That’s a lot more luxurious than the accommodation Iraq’s Hussein had to resort to. His chamber was six to eight feet deep, with only enough room for one person to lie down, an air vent and an extractor fan.