The Libyan Manhunt

Official victory celebrations have been put on hold while rebel leaders hunt for Gaddafi, alive or dead. Meanwhile, chaos rules while rumors fly: Gaddafi’s sons are in jail one day and free the next, and no one knows how or why.

08.23.11 10:12 PM ET

The war in Libya has turned into a countrywide manhunt now that the rebels control most of its territory. The National Transitional Council has delayed declaring victory until it can claim Muammar Gaddafi as a prisoner or a corpse.

But the Brother Leader’s family and supporters have rallied themselves overnight and are making a last stand in Tripoli and the town of Sirte, where Gaddafi was born. Meanwhile, Libya’s political future without him remains unknown, without too much dialogue about what the upcoming political system might look like.

Rebel fighters attacked and captured Bab el Azizia, Gaddafi’s iconic stronghold in Tripoli, under heavy return fire from loyalists. The once mighty fortress has largely been reduced to wreckage by relentless NATO airstrikes throughout the summer. Whether anyone is in the compound is unknown.

Residents of Benghazi celebrated the assault by setting off noisy explosions and fireworks, and firing rifles and antiaircraft guns into the air. Others were glued to their television sets, watching recurring pictures of smoke rising from the compound to the cacophony of gunfire.

“It is thrilling and historical,” said Hana el Gallal, who is putting together a human-rights team with the NTC. “People everywhere in the street and in front of [Benghazi’s] Freedom Square, chanting, laughing, and mesmerized.”

"We never thought we would see this moment,” said Magdulien Abaida, 24, the owner of a trucking business. “Gaddafi has been always the only terrorist for Libyans, and not only Libyans; he was an international terrorist."

U.S. military intelligence said that Gaddafi hasn’t fled the country. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, confirmed this. Ilyumzhinov played chess against Gaddafi in Tripoli in June and today claimed to have spoken to him on the phone. "In Arabic language, Muammar Gaddafi said that now he is in his country, he doesn't want to leave his homeland,” the chess master was quoted as saying.

The family’s presence was also confirmed by Gaddafi’s most well-known son, who was supposed to be safely behind bars. Instead, bald and grinning, Libya’s face to the West, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, showed up last night at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, where three dozen foreign journalists were trapped for days, surrounded by loyalist snipers.

Saif gave willing journalists a tour of the loyalist parts of Tripoli with his convoy, where the correspondents filmed people waving green flags and Saif calling out media outlets and the International Criminal Court as liars. “Screw the criminal court,” he said.

Saif’s media stunt exposed him to danger but also embarrassed the National Transitional Council—which had claimed that its troops had arrested him—and the International Criminal Court and the media outlets who went with the story. The ICC’s chief, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, claimed on Monday that Saif al-Islam was captured and that the court was negotiating his trial, as he is wanted for war crimes. The following day, Fadi el Abdallah, the ICC’s spokesman, denied this confirmation.

NTC personnel seemed to dodge the media for most of the day on Tuesday, making no statements and not answering requests for information. The only exceptions were the NTC’s human-rights spokesman, Hany Hassan Soufrakis, who called Saif's apparent escape “an embarrassment,” and Waheed Burshan, president of Libya's National Transitional Council in Gharyan, who spoke to Al Jazeera from Tunisia. He claimed that Saif must have escaped, and laid the responsibility at the feet of the rebel fighters.

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“The fact that he was arrested was confirmed to me personally,” he said. “The situation is still fluid. We still don’t know what happened. Is it the inexperience of our fighters? Is it the … gullibility of our youth?”

Saif’s brother Muhammad, also reportedly arrested, is now gone, with rumors circulating that a sympathetic rebel let him out of confinement.

With the battle in Tripoli the talk of the country, the NTC hasn’t said much about what will happen after the council is no longer transitional. The decision might have to come soon. Currently, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, is the de facto head of state to those who have acknowledged the rebels’ legitimacy. Neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, which had their own revolutions, have become the two most recent countries to do so.

NATO did acknowledge that it is willing to play a role in the country’s future, according to today’s statement by Oona Lungescu, an alliance spokeswoman in Brussels. She added that NATO’s involvement would be secondary to the U.N.’s, provided only upon Libyan request, and that NATO would put no boots on Libyan soil.