Qaddafi Was Captured Alive—Who Killed Him?

Libya's rebels, the U.S., and NATO may all hold responsibility for the death -- perhaps by execution -- of a man they'd pledged to bring to trial

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The body of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is displayed at a house in Misrata / Reuters

A few hours after the first photos emerged showing former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's lifeless body, a YouTube user named "freemisrata" posted a video appearing to show one of Qaddafi's last living minutes. The New York Times noted of the video, which was quickly broadcast on CNN and Al Jazeera English, "The man's injuries and clothing match those of the man said to be Colonel Qaddafi who appeared to be dead in video that emerged online earlier on Thursday." The man, who bears an incredible resemblance to Qaddafi, appears bloody and terrified but still well enough to walk. He is surrounded by a tight crowd of screaming, angry, armed young men. Immediately after the camera cuts away, a burst of gunfire can be heard off-screen, although as the Times notes it may have been celebratory. The video, which is graphic and disturbing, is below.

At first, members of the new Libyan government had said that Qaddafi had been seized after a firefight, but they changed their story after this video's emergence. "They captured him alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him," a senior member of Libya's transitional government told Reuters. The rebel fighters who captured Qaddafi found him hiding in a large concrete drainage pipe beneath a highway in the town of Sirte, photos of which are here.

How did Qaddafi end up hiding in a concrete pipe? The space is clearly too small and too unguarded to be a long-term hideaway like Saddam Hussein's desert spiderhole. News reports have claimed that the rebels initially found Qaddafi while he was traveling in a convoy. Late today, after hours of refusing to comment on the Libyan's death, U.S. officials started suggesting they might have played a very direct role. "US officials tell NBC News a US Predator drone fired a hellfire missile at convoy carrying Khadafy, who was then captured by rebels," NBC News' Ann Curry reported on Twitter. A NATO spokesperson acknowledged they had fired on a convoy.

If the U.S. and/or NATO had fired on Qaddafi convoy, this would certainly explain why rebels might find their former leader bloodied and crawling off of a road into a concrete drain pipe. It would also suggest that, even if the U.S./NATO attack wasn't trying to kill Qaddafi (though how you bomb someone's car in a way that isn't also trying to kill him is a mystery), it played a direct role in the demise he met soon after.

What did happen to Qaddafi after the video above cut away? No one can seem to say for sure. Libyan interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril admitted late on Thursday that Qaddafi had been found alive but insisted he had been killed accidentally. "There was cross-fire and he was shot while they were carrying him to a truck," Jibril said. It's of course possible that this is accurate, but it's difficult to imagine what crossfire there might have been. The above video showed dozens of rebels crowded around Qaddafi and no pro-Qaddafi troops in sight. How, exactly, do two bullets of "crossfire" happen to wiz their way through such a dense crowd and just happen to strike Qaddafi in the head and chest?

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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