Fighters suspect Libyan leader has fled Tripoli in network of underground tunnels
When Libyan rebels stormed Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in
Tripoli, he was nowhere to be found. The hunt for the Libyan dictator may now
take them underground.
Suspecting it might come to this, Gaddafi taunted North
Atlantic Treaty Organization allies three months ago, saying in a May 13
speech: “I live in a place they cannot reach and where you cannot kill me.”
Rebels broke into the compound in Bab Al Aziziya on August
23 after a day of gun battles, some of them riding black pick-ups with machine
guns welded to the back. The fighters were shown in news broadcasts entering
the broken gates of the compound and trying to tear down a statue of a golden
fist holding a jet, which Gaddafi used as backdrop for speeches and rallies.
Libyans have grown up on tales of an intricate network of
air-conditioned 1970s-era secret passages, which were fortified in the
aftermath of the 1986 US bombing raid on Tripoli to provide an increasingly
paranoid Gaddafi with a safe way out, according to Karim Mezran, a Libyan exile
and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International
Studies in Bologna, Italy.
“Nobody visited these
underground bunkers, but the information we got is that he has some tunnels
leading from Bab Al Aziziya to some other places like the airport and even
Martyrs’ Square,” the former Green Square staging ground for pro-Gaddafi
demonstrations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s former deputy ambassador to the
United Nations, told reporters yesterday in New York. Dabbashi, who now
represents the opposition, said the rebels “expect him to have some residences
Rebel units in the opposition stronghold of Misrata, now
racing west to support comrades in Tripoli, say their forces in the capital
have already begun searching the city’s drainage system for Gaddafi.
While Gaddafi’s whereabouts are still unknown, the rebels
said they had achieved “total victory” over him. Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice
president of the rebel National Transitional Council, said in an interview that
Gaddafi isn’t in the Al Aziziya compound and that rebels will comb the area
where they expect to find underground tunnels and corridors.
Other dictators who took refuge in various forms of
underground labyrinths include Adolf Hitler and former Soviet leader Joseph
Stalin. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu spent much of his rule constructing
tunnels to all parts of Bucharest so he could slip away via the suburbs in the
event of a popular uprising, though he never used them. Besieged inside the
communist party headquarters shortly before Christmas 1990, Ceausescu fled the
capital by helicopter and was arrested when it ran out of fuel and landed in a
Former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Salam Jalloud, once one
of Gaddafi’s closest associates, told Italian television RaiTre on August 21
that Gaddafi will fight to the very end, though he won’t kill himself like
Hitler. After the 1973 military coup, Chilean President Salvador Allende
committed suicide with a gun.
“I can envisage him more of a Saddam Hussein than a Salvador
Allende,” Ronald Bruce St. John, author of 14 books on Libya, said by telephone
from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I can see him in a spider hole somewhere but not
with an AK-47. I think he is probably insane. He is totally detached from
In December 2003, nine months after the US-led invasion of
Iraq, Hussein was finally caught in a hole next to farm buildings in his
hometown of Tikrit. In 2006, he was led to the gallows by masked men and hanged
Gaddafi’s Bab Al Aziziya underground complex has several
entrances, including one that his son, Saif al-Islam, has used to drive in and
out. It also may have a tunnel that connects the compound to Tripoli’s Rixos
hotel, where foreign journalists were staying during this year’s conflict and
where Saif al-Islam re-emerged this week after reports that he had been
captured, Mezran said.
The storming of the compound came after three days of
battles between rebels and Gaddafi forces inside the capital. The rebels
mounted a three-pronged attack on Tripoli over the weekend, ending weeks of
stalemate in the sixth-month conflict.
The bunker discovered by rebels underneath Gaddafi’s villa
in the mountain town of Bayda may give a clue what the tunnels in Tripoli might
According to a report and photos in the Daily Mail newspaper
in February, the bunker had three nine-inch-thick blast doors and led to a
massage room, seven bedrooms, a kitchen and caverns full of equipment.
Passageways with power generators and an air-filtration system led to an escape
shaft in the countryside.
That’s a lot more luxurious than the accommodation Iraq’s
Hussein had to resort to. His chamber was six to eight feet deep, with only
enough room for one person to lie down, an air vent and an extractor fan.