TRIPOLI, Libya — With the capital now almost completely under rebel control, the Libyan war’s focus is quickly shifting to an all-out manhunt for fugitive leader Moammar Gaddafi.
Wild rumors flew around Tripoli on Wednesday: He’s holed up in a network of tunnels linking the Rixos hotel, his Bab al-Aziziya compound and the sea. He’s at his farm near the international airport. He’s hiding among the animals at the Tripoli Zoo, which is located in a park that lies between the compound and the hotel, an area still under loyalist control.
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.
But Libya is a vast country, 10 times the size of Egypt, and most of it is desert, raising the prospect of a prolonged manhunt that could parallel past efforts to find much-wanted figures such as Osama bin Laden, who slipped through a dragnet thrown up by U.S. Special Forces and Afghan fighters in the Tora Bora mountains in 2001, and later Saddam Hussein, who escaped from Baghdad even as U.S. forces swarmed over the city and was eventually found hiding in a hole near his home town eight months later.
The United States is likely to play a far more limited role in this hunt, though another U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said its intelligence agencies would try to help.
“Clearly, locating Gaddafi is important for closure, so it will be one of several [intelligence] collection priorities in this next phase of the conflict,” he said. “As history suggests, people who don’t want to be found can be pretty resourceful, so it makes sense to keep an open mind on where he might be.”
Other officials expressed little appetite for getting involved. “It’s important for the people of Libya to know that he’s no longer in power,” said another U.S. official, who also wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “So, yes, it is important. Is it the only priority for [the U.S. and NATO effort in] Libya? No. He needs to be brought to justice for what he’s done. But you can’t focus on everything right now.”
U.S.-collected intelligence and overhead surveillance has been provided to NATO pilots who have been conducting bombing missions against loyalist forces for months. In recent weeks, British and French special forces troops operating on the ground have provided a conduit for that information to the rebels, a system that is expected to continue as the search for Gaddafi continues.
The United States is still providing all of the intelligence and surveillance in terms of satellites, drones, manned aircraft and signal intercepts of ground communications for the NATO mission, said one of the U.S. officials, but there are no plans to send any U.S. personnel to assist in the hunt for Gaddafi, he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there were also teams of U.S. government experts in Libya to help locate stockpiles of portable missiles and chemical gases that could fall into the wrong hands.
Libya has been awash with weapons for the past four decades, and “the United States has been concerned about the potential for proliferation challenges from Libya,” she said.
That Gaddafi is alive does not seem to be in question. In an audio statement purportedly from Gaddafi broadcast by the Syria-based al-Orouba TV station early Wednesday, he was clearly aware of the events unfolding in the capital, describing the rout of his forces at his Bab al-Aziziya compound the day before as a “tactical” retreat.
The station’s owner, Iraqi Mishan al-Jibouri, once renowned for broadcasting videos of Americans being blown up in Iraq, declined to say how the station had received the statement or to comment on Gaddafi’s whereabouts. But he promised that he would be broadcasting more messages from Gaddafi soon.
“We have our own ways, and we are helped by noble, honest Libyans inside Tripoli,” he said.
Sly reported from Beirut. Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Greg Miller and Joby Warrick in Washington; correspondent Simon Denyer in Tripoli; and special correspodent Uthman al-Mokhtar in Ramadi, Iraq, contributed to this report.