MISRATA (Libya): Muammar Gaddafi's last moments on Thursday were as violent as the uprising that overthrew him.
In a cellphone video that went viral on the Internet, the deposed Libyan leader is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a frenzied crowd, seemingly begging for mercy.
He is next seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair. Blood pours down his head, drenching his golden brown trousers, as the crowd shouts 'God is great!'
Gaddafi's body was shown in later photographs, with bullet holes apparently fired into his head at what forensic experts said was close range, raising the possibility that he was executed.
The official version of events offered by Libya's new leaders - that Gaddafi was killed in a crossfire - did not appear to be supported by the photographs and videos that streamed over the Internet all day, raising questions about the government's control of the militias in a country that has been divided into competing regions and factions.
The conflicting accounts of how he was killed seemed to reflect an instability that could trouble Libya long after the euphoria fades over the demise of the 69-year-old leader, who ruled Libya for 42 years.
At the same time, the flood of good news for the former rebels prompted a collective sigh of relief and quieted talks of rivalries, as strangers congratulated one another in the streets.
Attempt to flee ends in violent death
For weeks, as the fight for Sirte, Gaddafi's home town and final redoubt in the eight-month conflict, reached a bloody climax, Nato forces and Libyan fighters watched for an attempt by his armed loyalists to flee and seek safety elsewhere.
Soon after dawn, they did. Around 8.30am, a convoy slipped out of a fortified compound in Sirte, the scene of one of the civil war's bloodiest and longest battles, and a city that was on the verge of falling to Gaddafi's opponents.
Before the convoy had travelled about 3km, Nato officials said, it was set upon by a US Predator drone and a French warplane. With the attack, the convoy 'was stopped from progressing as it sought to flee Sirte but was not destroyed', French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said.
Only two vehicles in the convoy were hit, neither carrying Gaddafi, a Western official said. But the rest of the convoy was forced to detour and scatter. Anti-Gaddafi fighters rapidly descended on the scene, saying they saw people fleeing on foot through some nearby woods and gave pursuit.
Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Gaddafi was discovered with a group of supporters in a sewage pipe near a highway, armed with a pistol and wearing trousers and a long underwear shirt, a far cry from his famously flamboyant outfits. He did not resist arrest.
'What is happening?' the former leader was quoted as saying as he came out.
Al-Jazeera also quoted one fighter as saying that he begged for help. 'Show me mercy,' he was said to have cried.
As Gaddafi was being escorted to a truck, however, he was shot in the right arm in an exchange of gunfire between his supporters and the revolutionary fighters, Mr Jibril said.
The truck then got caught in crossfire as it headed towards a hospital, and Gaddafi was shot in the head, Mr Jibril said. 'That was the deadly shot.' The former leader died shortly thereafter.
But cellphone videos showed Gaddafi being loaded on a truck, blood spattered on his face and chest, suggesting he was wounded before boarding the truck.
In the video, one fighter is seen pulling his hair, and others beating his limp body. Two fighters interviewed by Al-Jazeera said that someone struck Gaddafi's head with a gun butt.
'We got you!' the fighters in camouflage yelled as they crowded around the wounded former leader.
By all accounts, Gaddafi's body was taken to Misrata, a coastal town to the west that fought perhaps the most ferocious battle against his regime and whose fighters still celebrate their reputation for martial prowess.
Ms Holly Pickett, a freelance photojournalist working in Sirte, reported in a Twitter feed that she had seen the body in an ambulance headed for Misrata, along with 10 fighters inside with him. It was unclear from her posting whether he was dead at the time.
'From the side door, I could see a bare chest with bullet wound and a bloody hand. He was wearing gold-coloured pants,' she said in one Twitter post.
No videos or photos appeared to show Gaddafi alive after he was spirited away from Sirte.
A reporter accompanying Mr Ali Tarhouni, the interim government's finance minister who visited Misrata to view the body, saw it splayed out on a mattress in the reception room of a private home, shirtless, with bullet wounds in the chest and temple, and blood on his arms and hair.
A doctor took samples of Gaddafi's DNA, blood and saliva to confirm his identity, Mr Jibril said. The doctor also clipped off pieces of the former dictator's hair, only to discover he was wearing a wig, according to the Prime Minister.
A secret burial is expected for Gaddafi, but one official indicated yesterday this may be delayed for a few days.
NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS