Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive through a district in Tripoli,… (Bob Strong, Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo — He has exasperated the world for decades and, now, amid gun battles and artillery smoke, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's whereabouts are a mystery.
The fight for the Libyan capital,Tripoli, seems far from over as Kadafi loyalists mount counterattacks that have pricked the air of invincibility that enveloped advancing rebels just days ago. But it should be no surprise that the eccentric man with the outsized sunglasses and ego to match would not have a few ploys left even as his power crumbles.
Photos: Battle for Tripoli
Kadafi is a master operator and clever shape changer. Throughout his 42-year rule he has played coup plotter, terrorist mastermind, oil opportunist and, to the disdain of his countrymen, Brother Leader, a title he bestowed upon himself as he bannered his image across villages and cities.
As the rebels push to find Kadafi, rumors multiply on his whereabouts: He is hunkered in his battered Bab Azizia compound in Tripoli. Or escaped to his tribal stronghold in Surt, or hiding along the border with Chad -- or Algeria. Or he's on a plane to Venezuela, where his ally Hugo Chavez rules. Kadafi has become the desperate villain in the shadows, with speculation about his next move preoccupying the country.
"Over the years he came to summits wearing costumes and sleeping in tents, so we have to expect something strange from him even in his exit," said Randa Habib, an analyst based in Jordan. "He must have underground tunnels, but maybe our imagination is running high. We thought Saddam Hussein had tunnels and an escape but he had only a hole. But Kadafi is an enigma. Anything goes with this man."
The Kadafi clan has embarrassed opposition forces in recent days. The rebels claimed on Sunday that they captured Kadafi's son and onetime heir apparent, Seif Islam. But flashing a bright smile and holding up a victory sign, he turned up Monday in front of a hotel filled with international journalists. His brother, Mohammed, is also reported to have escaped after being arrested by the rebels.
But much ofLibya is under the control of rebels backed by NATO warplanes. Airstrikes have kept Kadafi from appearing in public for two months. His video entreaties were frequent for a while but they dwindled until the man, known for his bluster and verbosity, released only audio recordings that lacked his impenetrable rambling luster.
His last recording was on Saturday.
"If you know where Kadafi is, let me know," NATO spokesman Roland Lavoie said, even as a fierce battled rumbled around the Libyan leader's compound.
President Ronald Reagan bombarded Kadafi's compound in 1986 after the Libyan leader was linked to the bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by U.S. soldiers. Kadafi survived, and two years later Tripoli was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. But after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kadafi, fearing a similar attack onLibya and wanting to end sanctions, changed course. He condemned terrorism and opened his nuclear program to international inspectors.
"Kadafi has always been a man who could drastically change his mind about everything in this world, and that's why it is very hard to predict how he thinks," said Mohamed Saied, Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
But he has always been brutal to his own people, conjuring a political philosophy known as Jamahiriya, or a "republic ruled by the masses," an exercise in vanity that denied Libyans tens of billions of dollars a year in oil revenues to build hospitals, schools and other institutions. Much of that neglect was in the east, where the rebel uprising began in February.
Few believe Kadafi can turn the momentum against him, but his loyalists could make for a messy endgame in the battle for Tripoli. His impact now may be how his fate plays into the Arab uprising sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Will he escape or, like toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, end up in a defendant's cage in a courtroom?
Libyans have said in recent days they need to see him captured before their nation can begin rebuilding. He needs to be purged before their eyes.
"We will never be able to put the cruel past of Kadafi's rule behind them until him and his sons get the just punishment for everything they've done to Libya for over 40 years," said Selim Seif Nassr, a 28-year-old businessman from Tripoli.
"I don't think that capturing him will be that easy, and I really fear that the rebels who will put their hands on him first might end up killing him. The amount of anger and rage against Kadafi in Libya is now more than double of what Egyptians might feel against Mubarak."
Photos: Battle for Tripoli
Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.