Dressed in rags and holding a cellphone, Muammar Gaddafi sits in the shade of an oasis palm in the southern Libyan desert. He gazes wistfully at signs that say “Niger 450 km”, “Burkina Faso 2,700 km”, “Algiers, 650 km”.
The cartoon, displayed on an easel in the lobby of Tripoli’s Mahari hotel, raises a smile from patrons checking their AK-47 assault rifles and machine pistols in the wooden gun rack behind the security desk.
Just about no one knows where the former leader is hiding, six weeks after Libya’s revolution finally broke his hold on the capital in an operation coordinated with NATO and Arab powers.
His aides and some of his sons scattered to provincial strongholds, where at least two — Mutassem and Saif al-Islam — are now believed to be fighting for their survival, respectively in Gaddafi’s coastal home town of Sirte and the inland town of Bani Walid.
Of their father, there is little trace.
But by coincidence rather than design, the mocking portrait of Gaddafi in the Mahari, temporary home to senior revolutionary fighters, illustrates neatly the working assumptions that lie behind the manhunt.
Such clues as exist seem to point south, placing the 69-year-old close to the country’s southern borders with sub-Saharan Africa.
And, as the drawing suggests, those who are tracking him suspect he is seeking a refuge in a Sahelian or sub-Saharan country, the regions where the man who called himself Africa’s “King of Kings” cultivated allies for decades.
A move abroad would place him at risk of arrest by African countries which are signed up to The Hague war crimes court. Many suggest he could outfox his pursuers by hiding in plain sight in an urban setting in Libyan’s north — a tactic employed successfully for years by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden until his killing by U.S. forces in Pakistan in May.
But in many respects the Sahara makes sense.
It may look near-empty from the map, but the world’s biggest desert serves as a contraband superhighway, especially at night when fewer eyes — including satellites — are watching.
The 69-year-old may now calculate he can vanish among the smugglers, shepherds, bandits, illegal migrants and militants who roam this part of Africa without a trace.
From what could be Gaddafi’s last refuge, Reuters reports:
Many residents of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s birth-place, blame Libya’s new rulers and their Western allies for the death and destruction unleashed on their city by weeks of fighting.
Most are reluctant to talk openly about their allegiances, for fear they will be branded as members of a pro-Gaddafi fifth column. Yet their anger and bitterness is clear.
“This country has been built around one man. If he is over, Libya will be over,” said a resident who gave his name as al-Fatouri, standing outside his home on the outskirts of Sirte.
“Gaddafi is like a picture frame. When part of the frame is hit, the whole picture will be destroyed, Libya will be destroyed,” he said.
Sirte is the sternest test yet of the ability of the interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to win over Gaddafi’s tribe and prevent it from mounting an Iraq-style insurgency that would destabilise Libya and the region.
While most cities captured by NTC forces have rejoiced, or at least given that impression, Sirte is different because it is home to members of Gaddafi’s tribe who genuinely back him.
“Let them look for Muammar, but do not kill 50,000 people to change the regime,” said Fatouri. “It is not worth it that thousands die in Sirte for Muammar. This is what saddens us.”
Fatouri said he, like thousands of other people from this city on the Mediterranean coast, had fled his home days ago because of the fighting. He decided later to come back.
“We refuse to leave, we don’t want to suffer… We would rather die here than leave our houses and suffer,” he said.
As he spoke, the sound of shelling and heavy machine guns reverberated around him and a crowd of locals gathered.
“They (NTC forces) used to start their day with bombing us, and finish it with bombing us… The kids used to hear the shelling like music,” said another resident standing nearby.