Libya conflict: Where could Muammar Gaddafi be hiding?

Muammar Gaddafi, 2010 Transitional authorities want to find Muammar Gaddafi as soon as possible

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has disappeared from view, and finding him has become an urgent priority for Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC). NTC officials say they can't be sure of his whereabouts, but they think he may be hiding in the southern desert with the help of Tuareg tribesmen. Here's a look at some possible hiding places:

Ghadamis

Hisham Buhagiar, a military commander heading the search for Col Gaddafi, said in late September that he believed the fugitive leader was hiding near Ghadamis, 550km (345 miles) south-west of Tripoli and close to both the Algerian and Tunisian borders.

Another NTC military official, Ahmed Bani, said a recent attack on Ghadamis had raised suspicions that Col Gaddafi was in the surrounding region, and that Gaddafi loyalists were creating a diversion. He said the Tuaregs who populate desert areas were probably being paid to protect Col Gaddafi.

Weeks earlier, the Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Col Gaddafi had tried to call Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from Ghadamis. He was said to be seeking refuge in Algeria, after his wife and three of his children crossed into the country on 29 August.

Sirte

Sirte is Col Gaddafi's birthplace. It was long cited as somewhere he might seek refuge, and Gaddafi loyalists there have shown fierce resistance.

Col Gaddafi developed Sirte from an obscure outpost into a second capital, maintaining a substantial compound there. The city hosts a major army garrison and has an air base nearby. Nato has previously targeted a "large bunker" in Sirte.

The city is home to members of Col Gaddafi's own Qadhadfa tribe and another local tribe, the Magariha; in an audio message on 1 September, Col Gaddafi said the tribes were armed and "there is no way they will submit".

NTC officials have said they believe one of Col Gaddafi's sons, Mutassim, is in Sirte.

But it may be too obvious a hiding place for the fugitive leader, partly because of its symbolic importance. Now that it is surrounded, the only realistic route of escape would be the sea, where Nato warships are deployed.

Bani Walid

Bani Walid is a city of some 50,000 people, 150km (95 miles) south-east of Tripoli. Col Gaddafi is reputed to have a lot of support there, though the city is mixed in its make-up. It is a stronghold for the Warfalla tribe.

In his defiant audio message on 1 September, Col Gaddafi referred to it as "an armed fortress", and as in Sirte, loyalists there have held out against the advance of NTC fighters.

The NTC may have made inroads in parts of the city, but the sprawling south could provide cover, as well as an escape route across the desert.

NTC officials were quoted as saying Col Gaddafi had fled with his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi to Bani Walid at the end of August. They believed the Gaddafis were trying to organise counter-attacks from the city.

Hisham Buhagiar later said that he believed the former leader had left Bani Walid and was heading south, but that Saif al-Islam remained in the city.

Sabha

Sabha is a desert town hundreds of miles south of Tripoli, with tens of thousands of inhabitants. Though not as large as Bani Walid, Sabha is significantly further south and may therefore offer better escape options.

Among its residents are many members of Col Gaddafi's Qadhadfa tribe.

However, the depth of their loyalty has been uncertain. In the past, Col Gaddafi had a number of people in Sabha executed, including members of the Qadhadfa and some of his own cousins.

There was reportedly a big anti-Gaddafi demonstration in the midst of the uprising, which is said to have been put down ruthlessly.

It was one of the last outposts for Gaddafi loyalists, but NTC officials announced on 21 September that they had taken control of the town.

Fighters hunt for Colonel Gaddafi

Tripoli

Tripoli fell to the Col Gaddafi's opponents on 23 August, and the compound of Bab al-Aziziya - the regime's symbolic centre - was overrun.

If Col Gaddafi had been in the compound shortly before, he may have used its network of tunnels and bunkers to take cover or escape.

In the short term, he could have sought anonymity in one of the areas of Tripoli that continued to fight.

In an audio message on 31 August, Col Gaddafi's most prominent son Saif al-Islam said he was speaking from the outskirts of the capital, and that he had been out for a walk earlier in the day. He said his father was well, but gave no indication of his whereabouts.

However, it now seems highly unlikely that Col Gaddafi would have remained in the capital. Hiding in plain sight would be a risky strategy, and make an escape harder to engineer.

Map of Libya

Another African country

Speculation that the colonel might seek refuge in another country was fuelled by the flight of a number of the Gaddafi entourage to Niger at the beginning of September.

They included Col Gaddafi's security chief Mansour Daw, and possibly his son Saadi - whom international police agency Interpol say was last seen in Niger.

Initial reports that Col Gaddafi could be hiding somewhere in the convoy, and that Burkina Faso had offered him refuge, were denied.

Many think the colonel's most likely escape route will involve travelling south.

The NTC's Hisham Buhagiar earlier cited reports that Col Gaddafi was trying to head towards Chad or Niger.

However, sanctuary would appear unlikely in either of these countries. Chad has now recognised the NTC. And Niger, which has recently installed a civilian democracy after years of authoritarian rule, would be risking its reputation by taking him in.

Niger recognises the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is seeking the arrest of Col Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam and Abdullah Sanussi.

Algeria has had stormy relations with the NTC, and is not a party to the ICC's statute, but its foreign minister has said his country will not take in the fugitive leader. According to Algeria's El-Chorouk newspaper, President Bouteflika has told his cabinet Algeria would hand Col Gaddafi over to the ICC should he try to flee to the west.

If Col Gaddafi were to attempt such an escape, he may have to do so secretly.

Sudan, under Omar al-Bashir, has been touted as another candidate for refuge. Mr Bashir is also wanted by the ICC, and with his regime propped up by Chinese investment, he would seem to have less to lose than most.

Zimbabwe and South Africa have also been mentioned as possible destinations. But it would be hard for Col Gaddafi to escape undetected by air, and travelling to these countries by any other means would be perilous, not least because some of the nations en route are signed up to the ICC statute and would, in theory, be obliged to arrest him.

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