Rebel fighters also said they were looking for Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who was last seen Monday at the Rixos, confounding rebel claims that he had been captured. The journalists who had been held at the hotel by Gaddafi loyalists, virtually as prisoners, were freed and driven to safety Wednesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In Benghazi, the rebel government announced a $1.7 million bounty along with amnesty for anyone who provided information leading to Gaddafi’s capture, raising the stakes in the race to find the man who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on a charge of crimes against humanity.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the leader of the Transitional National Council, also said that if Gaddafi, who has ruled for 42 years, renounced his claim to power, he would be allowed to travel to another country, a gesture that might not satisfy the many Libyans who have said they would like to see him sentenced to death by a Libyan court.
“Sometimes the lesser evil prevents the larger evil,” Abdel Jalil told reporters, explaining that Gaddafi’s exile would avert further bloodshed.
Rebel commanders said they were operating on the assumption that Gaddafi is still in the capital, most likely in one of the last few enclaves where his supporters are still putting up fierce resistance, including the staunchly pro-Gaddafi neighborhood of Abu Salim and the adjoining neighborhood of Hadba.
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said rebel organizer Abdel Azouz, who said he thinks Gaddafi is in Abu Salim, given the ferocity of the resistance there. “We’re looking for him, and don’t worry, we’ll find him.”
U.S. officials also say they presume Gaddafi is in Tripoli. One official who was not authorized to speak on the subject said there were as many as 40 compounds he could be hiding in, most of them in the capital.
A NATO official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said rebels had already scoured many of the tunnels leading from the Bab al-Aziziya compound, which they triumphantly stormed and pillaged on Tuesday.
With alliance planes watching the skies and the seas, it would be impossible for Gaddafi to flee by plane or ship, the NATO official said.
There also has been some speculation that Gaddafi may have long since slipped out of the capital to evade NATO airstrikes, perhaps taking refuge in his home town of Sirte or the southern town of Sabha, which has so far remained loyal. In a statement, the White House said it was sure he was still in Libya.