SIRTE, Libya — Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi asked his captors twice, "What do you want from me?" as they swarmed around him Thursday, according to video footage shot at the scene by a Libyan journalist. By early afternoon, he was dead, but how he died remained in dispute.
In one version, recounted by a reporter for the Arabic-language satellite channel al Arabiya, the former dictator was shot moments after his capture by an 18-year-old revolutionary fighter who was hailed as a hero by his comrades in arms.
In the other, told by officials of Libya's interim government in Tripoli, Gadhafi died en route to a hospital for treatment of wounds he suffered when the convoy he was riding in was hit by a NATO airstrike that preceded his detention.
Either way, Gadhafi's death after revolutionary fighters found him hiding in a drainage pipe in his hometown of Sirte was an ignominious end for an over-the-top ruler who gained worldwide notoriety with his flamboyant personal tastes and calculating geopolitical games.
Tripoli, the capital, and other Libyan cities erupted in volleys of gunfire and nonstop horn-honking as Libyans celebrated the demise of the eccentric despot who'd ruled them for 42 years, turning the oil-rich nation into a pariah state through his ill-fated military adventures and documented support for terrorist groups.
"I feel now that my children will rest in peace because the cause of their death is gone," said Ahmed Essa, 56, a tearful businessman whose two sons were killed in the NATO-backed war against Gadhafi's forces. "The country's priority should be collecting the weapons from all the young people and starting the process of building a new and better future for Libya."
Even with Gadhafi's dominating presence gone, Libya's interim authorities face serious obstacles to their goal of assembling a formal caretaker government and staging elections within eight months. But the deeply rooted regional and ideological divisions were shelved for a moment, at least, as Libyans rallied around the news that not only Gadhafi, but several members of his inner circle, had been killed or captured in a single day.
The bloodied corpse of Gadhafi's son and national security adviser, Moatassim, was paraded before TV cameras, though grainy video footage appeared to show that he, too, had been alive upon capture.
Saif al Islam, another son and onetime presumed successor, was reported wounded and in custody of revolutionary forces, though conflicting reports said he'd been killed as well.
Gadhafi's defense minister, Abu Bakr Younis Jabr, also was said to have been alive at capture but was later identified as among the dead, according to news reports. The information couldn't be independently verified.
"Today we can definitively say that the Gadhafi regime has come to an end," President Barack Obama said in the Rose Garden of the White House. "The last major regime strongholds have fallen. A new government is consolidating control over the country. One of the world's longest-serving dictators is no more."
A plethora of amateur videos surfaced to chronicle Gadhafi's last moments. Warning: Graphic content
In one, a khaki-clad man identified as Gadhafi appears wounded, splayed out on the hood of a truck. He's wounded, his shirt bloody. Revolutionary fighters haul him to a standing position, then surround him, pushing him away from the camera before he turns and seems to gesture.
"We want him alive," one man can be heard saying.
Another clip, obviously shot later, shows a man who appears to be the now dead deposed leader lying in the street, stripped half-naked and splattered with blood. Bystanders chanting, "God is great!" can be seen kicking him.
In yet another video, Gadhafi's battered face, his eyes partially closed in death, is held up to the camera for a close-up before the camera operator pans away to show about a dozen revolutionary fighters shouting and flashing victory signs as they jostled for positions in the picture.
The short videos instantly became iconic images for the Arab Spring protests: a despotic Middle Eastern ruler forced out of power and killed by his people in a popular uprising that turned into an armed rebellion. The image of Gadhafi's bloody face is sure to send chills among other embattled Middle Eastern leaders such as Syria's Bashar Assad and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"This is the end of the war and the emancipation proclamation of Libya," said Fatima Ben Massoud, 30, a schoolteacher in Tripoli.
There was no definitive version of Gadhafi's last day, however. Instead, bits and pieces emerged from eyewitness accounts and video footage that gave a sense of what took place, but with many questions still to be answered.
A doctor who was part of the medical team that accompanied Gadhafi's body in an ambulance and examined it told the Associated Press that Gadhafi had died from two bullet wounds, to the head and chest.
Al Arabiya reported that the fatal shots were fired by an 18-year-old revolutionary fighter named Ahmed Shebani, who was photographed holding a golden handgun while being hoisted onto the shoulders of his cheering comrades. There was no official confirmation of this account, but the British Broadcasting Corp. later offered substantially the same story, adding that the handgun had been taken from Gadhafi himself, then turned on the former dictator.
The French defense minister said a French aircraft had struck a convoy, and a NATO spokesman confirmed that its forces had struck armed military vehicles that were part of a larger contingent in the vicinity of Sirte. But the NATO spokesman couldn't verify whether Gadhafi or other senior regime figures were among the convoy's casualties. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, confirmed that a NATO aircraft had struck near Sirte, but declined to give its nationality.
A McClatchy special correspondent in Sirte said that predawn explosions — likely by NATO aircraft — rocked the city around 3 a.m., followed by an advance later that morning into the city by revolutionary forces, which captured the city without a fight.
About 1 p.m., reports began circulating that a 40-car convoy outside the city had been bombed by NATO warplanes around noon.
According to a video shot at the scene by a Libyan journalist, a revolutionary brigade commander named Ziyad said that after the convoy was bombed, his fighters found Gadhafi in a drainage pipe below the roadside. Pro-Gadhafi gunmen fired on the brigade but were killed, and when the revolutionary fighters found Gadhafi, the fugitive ex-leader asked, twice, "What do you want from me?"
Ziyad, commander of a Misrata-based contingent called the Tajine brigade, said that Gadhafi had been shot and was bleeding but alive when vehicles carried him away from the scene. Ziyad said he didn't know the circumstances of Gadhafi's death.
But there was no doubt about what the death would mean at least in one sense in Libya: The upcoming political process won't be overshadowed by a protracted trial that might have stoked internecine tensions and given Gadhafi a platform to distract from pressing transitional matters with more of his signature rambling tirades.
"This will mean that everyone in Libya can exhale," said Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo and a noted Libya expert. She predicted a period of relaxed tensions that would give the National Transitional Council, which has been Libya's de facto ruling authority since August, space to tackle "the challenges of constructing genuine public debate about the future of the country and deciding how to deal with the stalwarts of the old regime."
But pressures also are expected to mount on the council, which has been seen as lacking credibility and cohesion, because it will no longer have the ongoing search for Gadhafi as an excuse for what critics call its sluggish, uncoordinated handling of transitional affairs so far.
The council's mostly self-appointed leadership is riven with regional, tribal and ideological divisions, and Gadhafi's death, analysts warned, wasn't a silver bullet for serious problems that have yet to be resolved. Chief among those problems is the disarming and reintegration of thousands of revolutionary militiamen who are more loyal to individual commanders than to a central government.
It's now up to the National Transitional Council to prove it can move beyond infighting and form a credible, internationally supported caretaker body to secure and guide Libya through the drafting of a constitution and preparing for elections, said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who follows Libya for the Royal United Services Institute.
Joshi said Gadhafi's death would lead to a momentary bump in unity among transitional council leaders and could boost their credibility before the public, especially if they fulfill their promises to step aside in favor of more popular figures. But the outlook is less rosy for the long term.
"Following that, some of these divisions will come back to the fore because they exist independently of Gadhafi and will outlive him," Joshi said.
(Special correspondent al Fitory reported from Sirte, Libya. Allam reported from Cairo. Contributing to this story were Lesley Clark and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington, Shashank Bengali in Kabul, Afghanistan, special correspondent Rifaat Ahmed in Cairo and special correspondent Mohamed Albuaishi in Tripoli.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's Hannah Allam on Twitter.