SIRTE, Libya — Dragged from hiding in a drainage pipe, a wounded Moammar Gadhafi raised his hands and begged revolutionary fighters: “Don’t kill me, my sons.” Within an hour, he was dead, but not before jubilant Libyans had vented decades of hatred by pulling the eccentric dictator’s hair and parading his bloodied body on the hood of a truck.
The death Thursday of Gadhafi, two months after he was driven from power and into hiding, decisively buries the nearly 42-year regime that had turned the oil-rich country into an international pariah and his own personal fiefdom.
It also thrusts Libya into a new age in which its transitional leaders must overcome deep divisions and rebuild nearly all its institutions from scratch to achieve dreams of democracy.
“We have been waiting for this historic moment for a long time. Moammar Gadhafi has been killed,” Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said in the capital of Tripoli. “I would like to call on Libyans to put aside the grudges and only say one word, which is Libya, Libya, Libya.”
President Barack Obama told the Libyan people: “You have won your revolution.”
Although the U.S. briefly led the relentless NATO bombing campaign that sealed Gadhafi’s fate, Washington later took a secondary role to its allies. Britain and France said they hoped that Gadhafi’s death would lead to a more democratic Libya.
Other leaders have fallen in the Arab Spring uprisings, but the 69-year-old Gadhafi is the first to be killed. He was shot to death in his hometown of Sirte, where revolutionary fighters overwhelmed the last of his loyalist supporters Thursday after weeks of heavy battles.
Also killed in the city was one of his feared sons, Muatassim, while another son — one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam — was wounded and captured. An AP reporter saw cigarette burns on Muatassim’s body.
Bloody images of Gadhafi’s last moments raised questions over exactly how he died after he was captured wounded, but alive. Video on Arab television stations showed a crowd of fighters shoving and pulling the goateed, balding Gadhafi, with blood splattered on his face and soaking his shirt.
Gadhafi struggled against them, stumbling and shouting as the fighters pushed him onto the hood of a pickup truck. One fighter held him down, pressing on his thigh with a pair of shoes in a show of contempt.
Fighters propped him on the hood as they drove for several moments, apparently to parade him around in victory.
“We want him alive. We want him alive,” one man shouted before Gadhafi was dragged off the hood, some fighters pulling his hair, toward an ambulance.
Later footage showed fighters rolling Gadhafi’s lifeless body over on the pavement, stripped to the waist and a pool of blood under his head. His body was then paraded on a car through Misrata, a nearby city that suffered a brutal siege by regime forces during the eight-month civil war that eventually ousted Gadhafi. Crowds in the streets cheered, “The blood of martyrs will not go in vain.”
Thunderous celebratory gunfire and cries of “God is great” rang out across Tripoli well past midnight, leaving the smell of sulfur in the air. People wrapped revolutionary flags around toddlers and flashed V for victory signs as they leaned out car windows. Martyrs’ Square, the former Green Square from which Gadhafi made many defiant speeches, was packed with revelers.
In Sirte, the ecstatic former rebels celebrated the city’s fall after weeks of fighting by firing endless rounds into the sky, pumping their guns, knives and even a meat cleaver in the air and singing the national anthem.
The outpouring of joy reflected the deep hatred of a leader who had brutally warped Libya with his idiosyncratic rule. After seizing power in a 1969 coup that toppled the monarchy, Gadhafi created a “revolutionary” system of “rule by the masses,” which supposedly meant every citizen participated in government but really meant all power was in his hands. He wielded it erratically, imposing random rules while crushing opponents, often hanging anyone who plotted against him in public squares.
Abroad, Gadhafi posed as a Third World leader, while funding militants, terror groups and guerrilla armies. His regime was blamed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the downing of a French passenger jet in Africa the following year, as well as the 1986 bombing of a German discotheque frequented by U.S. servicemen that killed three people.
The day began with revolutionary forces bearing down on the last of Gadhafi’s heavily armed loyalists, who in recent days had been squeezed into a block of buildings of about 700 square yards.
A large convoy of vehicles moved out of the buildings, and revolutionary forces moved to intercept it, said Fathi Bashagha, spokesman for the Misrata Military Council, which commanded the fighters who captured him. At 8:30 a.m., NATO warplanes struck the convoy, a hit that stopped it from escaping, according to French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet.
Fighters then clashed with loyalists in the convoy for three hours, with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns. Members of the convoy got out of the vehicles, Bashagha said.
Gadhafi and other supporters fled on foot, with fighters in pursuit, he said. A Gadhafi bodyguard captured as they ran away gave a similar account to Arab TV stations.
Gadhafi and several bodyguards took refuge in a drainage pipe under a highway nearby. After clashes ensued, Gadhafi emerged, telling the fighters outside, “What do you want? Don’t kill me, my sons,” according to Bashagha and Hassan Doua, a fighter who was among those who captured him.
Bashagha said Gadhafi died in the ambulance from wounds suffered during the clashes. Abdel-Jalil Abdel-Aziz, a doctor who accompanied the body in the ambulance during the 120-mile drive to Misrata, said Gadhafi died from two bullet wounds — to the head and chest.
A government account of Gadhafi’s death said he was captured unharmed and later was mortally wounded in the crossfire from both sides.
Amnesty International urged the revolutionary fighters to give a complete report, saying it was essential to conduct “a full, independent and impartial inquiry to establish the circumstances of Col. Gadhafi’s death.”
The TV images of Gadhafi’s bloodied body sent ripples across the Arab world and on social networks such as Twitter.
Many wondered whether a similar fate awaits Syria’s Bashar Assad and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, two leaders clinging to power in the face of long-running Arab Spring uprisings. For the millions of Arabs yearning for freedom, democracy and new leadership, the death of one of the region’s most brutal dictators will likely inspire and invigorate the movement for change.
As word spread of Gadhafi’s death, jubilant Libyans poured into Tripoli’s central Martyr’s Square, chanting “Syria! Syria!” — urging the Syrian opposition on to victory.
“This will signal the death of the idea that Arab leaders are invincible,” said Egyptian activist and blogger Hossam Hamalawi. “Mubarak is in a cage, Ben Ali ran away, and now Gadhafi killed. ... All this will bring down the red line that we can’t get these guys.”
Thursday’s final blows to the Gadhafi regime allow Libya’s interim leadership, the National Transitional Council, to declare the entire country liberated.
It rules out a scenario some had feared — that Gadhafi might flee into Libya’s southern deserts and lead a resistance campaign. Following the fall of Tripoli on Aug. 21, Gadhafi loyalists mounted fierce resistance in several areas, including Sirte, preventing the new leadership from declaring full victory. Earlier this week, revolutionary fighters gained control of one stronghold, Bani Walid.
Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said Muatassim Gadhafi was killed in Sirte. Abdel-Aziz, the doctor who accompanied Gadhafi’s body in the ambulance, said Muatassim was shot in the chest. Also killed was Gadhafi’s Defense Minister Abu Bakr Younis.
Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi said Seif al-Islam Gadhafi had been wounded in the leg and was being held in a hospital in the city of Zlitan, northwest of Sirte. Shammam said Seif was captured in Sirte, but the senior NTC leadership did not immediately confirm.
The council will declare liberation on Saturday, Mohamed Sayeh, a senior council member, said. That begins a key timetable toward creating a new system: The NTC has always said it will form a new interim government within a month of liberation and will hold elections within eight months.
But the revolutionary forces are an unruly mix of militias from Libya’s major cities, and already differences have emerged between them. Revolutionaries from Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi — Libya’s second-largest city that has served as the rebel capital during the civil war — have exchanged accusations that each is trying to dominate the new rule.
Also, Islamic fundamentalists have taken an increasingly prominent role, pushing for some form of Islamic state in Libya, causing friction with more secular leaders.
“Libyans aim for multiparty politics, justice, democracy and freedom,” said Libyan Defense Minister Jalal al-Degheili. “The end of Gadhafi is not the aim, we say the minor struggle is over. The bigger struggle is now coming. This will not happen unless all the Libyan people are … united.”