The chief mourners were Saif al-Arab’s higher-profile elder brothers Mohammed and Saif al-Islam. The latter was once seen as a reformist voice within the government and occasionally tipped as a possible successor to his father.
Saif al-Arab’s coffin, covered in a wreath of flowers and draped in the green flag adopted by the regime since Gaddafi took over in a military coup in 1969, was carried through a throng of supporters, who chanted, “The people want revenge for the martyr” and “Revenge, revenge for you, Libya.”
Soldiers, police officers and bodyguards struggled to corral the crowd as his body was taken to the Hani cemetery, a dusty plot of ground where his grandfather also lies, reportedly killed fighting Italy’s colonial invasion nearly a century ago.
The most recognizable figure at the graveside was the bespectacled Saif al-Islam, dressed in a black round hat, a white shirt and black waistcoast. He reached down to touch his younger brother’s chest for the last time and then fought back tears as the body, covered in a white shroud, was taken from a simple wooden coffin and lowered into the ground.
Swiftly regaining his composure, Saif al-Islam then left the graveside, flashing V-for-victory signs, waving at faces he recognized and shaking his fist in defiance, his every step jostled by a surging and poorly controlled crowd.
The crowd was smaller than might have been expected, given the city’s population of about 2 million and the government’s assertions of strong support for the regime.
Saif al-Arab was killed in a NATO airstrike on his home on Saturday evening, along with a friend and three of Gaddafi’s grandchildren, ages 6 months to 2 years, Libya’s government says. They were the children of Gaddafi’s sons Mohammed and Hannibal and of his daughter, Aisha.
The government says that Gaddafi and his wife were also in the residence at the time of the airstrike but escaped unharmed and that NATO must have had some intelligence about the Libyan leader’s whereabouts, perhaps from an informer or from communications intercepts.
The government’s credibility is so low among its opponents that many people in rebel-held eastern Libya do not believe that Saif al-Arab is dead, suspecting a ploy to divide NATO and undermine its mission. A French orthopedic surgeon, however, said that he had examined the body and compared it to photographs and that it was very probably that of Saif al-Arab.
Anger erupted in Tripoli after news of Saif al-Arab’s death broke, and the U.S., British and Italian embassies were attacked and burnt by mobs that night. In response, Britain expelled the Libyan ambassador to London, while the Libyan government expressed regret and promised to repair the damage.