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Kadafi compound becomes a big attraction

Visitors throng Moammar Kadafi's Bab Azizia compound in Tripoli. 'I don't think any Libyan believed we would ever see this place. But the day has finally come,' says one self-appointed tour guide.

August 31, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A Libyan rebel inspects a clinic in the network of bunkers beneath the home of Mutassim Kadafi, son of Moammar Kadafi, in Tripoli. The elder Kadafi's Bab Azizia compound has also been overrrun by rebels, who have opened it to the public.
A Libyan rebel inspects a clinic in the network of bunkers beneath the home… (Patrick Baz / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Revolutionary voyeurism was booming Tuesday in Moammar Kadafi's former home and headquarters, where euphoric visitors honking horns and firing Kalashnikov rounds seemed unanimous on one point: The man who ran Libya for more than four decades must be captured or killed.

"We need to cut off the head of the snake," said Ahmed Digin, a rebel standing guard at the sprawling Bab Azizia compound, now open to a public delirious with the unexpectedly rapid fall of Libya's long-feared leader. "That is the only way to convince people that there is no use in resisting the revolution."

The rebels have in effect ended Kadafi's lengthy rule. But finding him, insurgent leaders say, would quell remaining opposition and erase any doubt that Libya has embarked on a new era.

Photos: The Libyan conflict

Many suspect that Kadafi is hiding in his hometown, Surt, a loyalist enclave about 225 miles east of the capital. The rebel leadership on Tuesday issued an ultimatum: Anti-Kadafi forces will give officials in Surt until Saturday — after the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the conclusion of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan — to surrender or face attack.

Ali Abdul Salaam Tarhouni, a representative of the rebels' Transitional National Council, told reporters that rebel leaders "have a good idea" where Kadafi is.

"We don't have any doubt that we will catch him," said Tarhouni, who declined to provide additional details.

Libya's interim leadership demanded that neighboring Algeria repatriate members of Kadafi's family who have fled there this week, among them his wife, daughter, two sons and grandchildren, reportedly including one born in the Sahara desert as the family made its way into exile. The rebels want to put family members on trial along with Kadafi.

The news that much of the ex-leader's family had escaped focused people's interest on the question: Where is Kadafi?

To many here, Surt is the obvious answer.

"You know, they say the elephant always goes back to his home to die," said Mohammed Hejazi, a rebel wearing a red beret at a beachside base that was once a private resort for the Kadafi family.

Others speculate that Kadafi may be in the southern desert town of Sabha, which could facilitate escape to sub-Saharan Africa, where Kadafi cultivated robust support. Additional possibilities include loyalist enclaves such as the city of Bani Walid, 95 miles southeast of Tripoli. Then there are those who believe Kadafi is hiding in the capital.

"I think he's right here in Tripoli, maybe in a tunnel somewhere," ventured Digin, the rebel at Bab Azizia, who was decked out in classic revolutionary garb: camouflage flak vest, jeans, the de rigueur Kalashnikov and a black beret covering his stringy hair.

These are days of euphoria for many Libyans, despite the string of post-Kadafi hardships, including severe shortages of running water, power and gasoline. Such problems and other pressing issues, including the proliferation of weapons here and the uncertain status of the future government, remained in the background for many cavorting about Kadafi's former home turf.

"Yes, there is no water, no electricity, but these are things that will be fixed," said Othman Abdullah Masri, 50, an electrical engineer who took his wife and three children to join the revelry at Bab Azizia. Long a site of mystery and dread to most Libyans, it now is a kind of ersatz Kadafi theme park. "What counts now is that our children will not have to live with Kadafi."

A steady queue of traffic crawled along at an entrance to the vast complex, which was overrun last week by rebels in a violent battle. Insurgent gun trucks, like something out of a "Mad Max" fantasy, waited along with station wagons crammed with children and grandparents. Awed civilians stood in the watchtowers where machine gun emplacements once kept guard.

Sightseers lined up at entrances to the compound's vast tunnel complex, where metal ladders lead to concrete-lined passages that seemed to go on for long distances, in various directions.

"Kadafi poured Libya's money into infrastructure here at Bab Azizia, but not anywhere else," said Mohammed Ramadan, 30, a clothing salesman.

Gone is one of the regime's signature monuments: a massive golden-hued hand crushing a U.S. fighter jet. Rebels removed the sculpture, which Kadafi built to commemorate the 1986 Reagan administration airstrikes in retaliation for alleged Libyan involvement in a Berlin nightclub bombing targeting U.S. servicemen.

"Come, I'll show you Kadafi's home," said Hisham Jawahari, 40, an airport dispatcher who has become a self-appointed tour guide.

Jawahari leads visitors through a once-luxurious dwelling now charred and acrid with the smell of smoke and fire from North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombings. The home was not ostentatious, in the style of Saddam Hussein's garish palaces in Iraq, but, rather, comfortable and expansive.

Amid the debris are mementos of the Kadafis' lives, including handwritten notes and photographs. Souvenir hunters scavenged through the piles.

"I don't think any Libyan believed we would ever see this place," said Jawahari. "But the day has finally come."

Photos: The Libyan conflict

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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