Libyan interim government fighters captured Muammar Qaddafi’s home town on Thursday, extinguishing the last significant holdout of resistance by troops loyal to the deposed leader and ending a two-month siege.
The capture of Sirte means Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) should now begin the task forging a new democratic system which it had said it would start after the city, built as a showpiece for Qaddafi’s rule, had fallen.
“Sirte has been liberated. There are no Qaddafi forces anymore,” said Colonel Yunus Al Abdali, head of operations in the eastern half of the city. “We are now chasing his fighters who are trying to run away.”
Another commander confirmed the city had been captured and some rebel fighters beeped their car horns and shouted “congratulations” to one another.
News reports were conflicting on whether Qaddafi was arrested. Initially, Libyan TV channels circulated reports that the embattled leader himself was arrested.
Other reports said that the corpse of Qaddafi had arrived in Misrata.
A senior NTC military official said that Qaddafi died of wounds suffered in his capture near his hometown of Sirte.
NTC official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters earlier that Qaddafi was captured and wounded in both legs at dawn on Thursday as he tried to flee in a convoy which NATO warplanes attacked.
The Libyan government also said that Qaddafi was hiding in a hole in Sirte, shouting “don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”
There were reports also by Reuters that Qaddafi’s son, Mutassim, and his intelligence head, Abdullah al-Sinosi and were arrested.
The U.S. State Department on Thursday said it could not confirm that deposed Qaddafi was captured and wounded in both legs.
“We’ve seen the media reports but can’t confirm them,” State Department spokeswoman Beth Gosselin told Reuters.
A pro-Qaddafi television website denied Thursday reports that the strongman had been killed or captured.
“The reports peddled by the lackeys of NATO about the capture or death of the brother leader, Muammar Qaddafi, is baseless,” said Al-Libiya television.
Qaddafi “is in good health,” it added.
But Holland's prime minister said that Qaddafi was captured.
Meanwhile, Libyan NTC fighters said that they were arresting former Libyan officials and medics said that Qaddafi’s defense minister, Abu Bakr Yunis, was dead.
A Libyan transitional forces commander said Moussa Ibrahim, former spokesman for Qaddafi’s fallen government, was captured near the city of Sirte.
A group of some 40 vehicles carrying Qaddafi forces had broken out of the city and had headed west, NTC fighters said.
“The Qaddafi people broke out west, but the revolutionaries have them surrounded and are dealing with them,” said one of the fighters, Abdul Salam Mohammad.
Reporters at the scene watched as the final assault began around 8 a.m. and ended about 90 minutes later. Just before the assault, about five carloads of loyalists tried to flee the enclave down the coastal highway but were met by gunfire from the revolutionaries, who killed at least 20 of them.
Meanwhile, the troops did not allow reporters to enter the positions formerly held by the Qaddafi loyalists as they said mopping up operations were still underway.
“Our forces control the last neighborhood in Sirte,” Hassan Draoua, a member of Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, told The Associated Press in Tripoli after Sirte’s fall. “The city has been liberated.”
At least 16 pro-Qaddafi fighters were captured, along with multiple cases of ammunition and trucks loaded with weapons. Reporters saw the fighters beating captured Qaddafi men in the back of trucks and officers intervening to stop them.
Celebratory gunfire echoed through Sirte, which fell into the hands of revolutionaries almost two full months after they overrun Tripoli and many other parts of the oil-rich North African nation.
It is unclear whether Qaddafi loyalists who have escaped might continue the fight and attempt to organize an insurgency using the vast amount of weapons Qaddafi was believed to have stored in hideouts in the remote southern desert.
Unlike Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi had no well-organized political party that could form the basis of an insurgent leadership. However, regional and ethnic differences have already appeared among the ranks of the revolutionaries, possibly laying the foundation for civil strife.
Qaddafi, who is in hiding, has issued several audio recordings trying to rally supporters. Libyan officials have said they believe he's hiding somewhere in the vast southwestern desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria.
He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of ordering the killing of civilians. He was toppled by rebel forces on August 23 after 42 years of rule over the oil-producing North African state.