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Is Qaddafi in Tripoli?

Not necessarily.

By Staff writer / August 23, 2011

A rebel fighter climbs on a statue inside Muammar Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli in this image taken from TV on Tuesday Aug. 23. The sprawling complex, heavily damaged by NATO airstrikes, is the most defining symbol of Qaddafi's nearly 42-year rule and its fall.

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The hunt is on for Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli. At around noon eastern time rebel fighters breached the walls of Qaddafi's Bab al-Azizyah compound in the city, and both fighters and civilians have been pouring in ever since.

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Al Jazeera has been carrying footage of jubilant fighters inside the compound trying to pull down a statue of a fist crushing a US jet. Reporters and Libyans on the scene said the pro-Qaddafi resistance appeared to have melted away in the sprawling neighborhood, and a frantic search for Qaddafi, who's ruled Libya with an iron fist for 40 years, has begun.

There are rumors that the area is riddled with tunnels and hidden bunkers, and many people have speculated that he could be squirreled away underground. But similar rumors in Benghazi – that the main barracks there were also riddled with tunnels – were proven false after the city fell to the uprising in February. And there's no guarantee that Qaddafi is in Tripoli at all. The rebel advance on Tripoli last week made it clear that his control of the capital was precarious, and you don't stay alive as a dictator for generations without a strong sense of self-preservation.

Could he have snuck out of the city sometime in the past week? While most of his sons have remained in Tripoli, including Seif al-Islam, who spoke to reporters at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel in the early morning today, Qaddafi has not been seen in public for quite some time. It's certainly possible.

Norman Bentoman, a Libyan analyst and former Islamist fighter who renounced violence in 2001 and now lives in exile in the UK, said on Al Jazeera English this afternoon that he suspects the dictator has fled south into the desert, where he still commands troops, most likely to the Southeastern Kufra Oasis. He had no evidence for that possibility beyond his knowledge of Libya and belief that Qaddafi still has control of bases in the south.

But it's a point worth considering. Saddam Hussein slipped out of Baghdad when US forces took the city in 2003 and spent nine months on the run in the face of a heavily resourced manhunt. Qaddafi has had months to plan for this contingency, and living to fight another day would certainly fit his style.

Of course, there could be news of the capture or killing of Qaddafi in the coming hours. But there's no reason to assume he's simply awaiting the end as his regime crumbles around him.

--- Follow Dan Murphy from Twitter.

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