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Where is Gadhafi? Guessing game begins as an era ends in Libya

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(Enric Marti/AP)

Where in the world is Moammar Gadhafi?

"He's everywhere, he's nowhere; he's negotiating to get out, he will never surrender; who knows?" former United Nations official Mark Quarterman said of the contradictory reports about Gadhafi's fate in an interview Monday with The Envoy.

What's important for Libya's reconciliation process is not just that the dictator is on the way out, Quarterman stressed, but how he goes.

"Gadhafi's mode of leaving is very important," Quarterman, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Envoy. "If he leaves but aspects of his regime stick around—-people who keep the lights on,  and pick up the garbage, and they cooperate with the new transitional authority, that's a good thing. ... But if there's chaos in his wake," that would be very bad.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, leader of the Libyan opposition National Transition Council, triumphantly declared "the Gadhafi era is over" Monday as rebels poured into the capital of Tripoli, meeting sporadic fighting and pockets of resistance in certain neighborhoods.

The NTC said they had three of Gadhafi's sons in custody or under house arrest--including former heir apparent Seif al-Islam Gadhafi and Gadhafi's eldest son, Mohammed. (Those claims turned out not to be true however, as became evident when Seif appeared at the foreign journalists' Tripoli hotel early Tuesday and proceeded to take them on a tour of the parts of the capital he said were still under Gadhafi regime control.) They confessed however they had no idea of the whereabouts of the dictator who has brutally ruled the North African nation for almost 42 years.

British and French leaders also claimed Monday to be in the dark about Gadhafi's coordinates, and South Africa denied that the Libyan ruler had found refuge there.

"Bab al-Aziziya and the surrounding areas are still out of our control," Abdel-Jalil told journalists at a triumphant press conference in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi Monday, the Associated Press reported, referring to the Tripoli neighborhood where the Gadhafi compound in located. "We have no knowledge of Gadhafi being there, or whether he is still in or outside Libya."Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said Monday that "Paris did not know where [Gadhafi] was," Angus McSwan of Reuters reported. "British Prime Minister David Cameron said London had no confirmation of his whereabouts either."

American officials, for their part, told journalists they believe Gadhafi is most likely still in Libya, news agencies reported.

"I think that's probably fair to say that we believe he's still in the country," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told journalists Monday, ABC News reported. "On what basis can we say that? Just again, it's a belief. We do not have any information that he has left the country."

The Libyan strongman--with a penchant for wearing stand-out-in-a-crowd, brightly colored Bedouin-style robes as well as all-white 1970s-disco-era suits and heavy black eyeliner--made his last public appearance in mid-June, three months into the imposition of a NATO-led no-fly-zone.

Since then, as the tempo of NATO air strikes has increased, reportedly killing one of his sons and some of his grandchildren, Gadhafi, 69, has delivered his typically defiant speeches--including one on Saturday that called the Libyan rebels "rats"--by telephone to Libyan state television from undisclosed locations.

Despite his public vows he would never surrender, however, American officials boasted to NBC last week that Gadhafi emissaries were privately negotiating a possible exit strategy for Gadhafi and his family.

South Africa formally denied Monday that Gadhafi had found refuge there. "The South African government would like to refute and dispel the rumors that it has sent planes to Libya to fly individuals to some undisclosed locations or South Africa," South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Monday, Reuters reported.

Britain has also backed off earlier winks and nudges that Venezuela might have sent a plane for Gadhafi, Reuters' MacSwan wrote.

Many Libya hands in Washington put their money on Gadhafi being in Libya, possibly at his desert operating base in Sirte, in southern Libya, where he originally comes from, or nearby the capital.

A former congressional Middle East staffer who met with Gadhafi in late 2009 in Libya during the brief five year rapprochement between the United States and Gadhafi's Libya said he had been flown from Tripoli to a shoe-box airport and was then driven in a fleet of SUVs to Gadhafi's Sirte compound, styled like a Bedouin camp.

"He walked in with white linen pants, loafers with no socks, and a big flowy print shirt, wearing make-up, eye liner … and I thought, 'Caribbean night in the Libyan desert,'" the former staffer told The Envoy in March. "It was surreal."

"I walked away from the meeting thinking, if this guy had been born in any other country, he would be in a mental institution or heavily medicated," the former staffer continued. He added, however, that the semi-comical aspects of Gadhafi's personality cult were overshadowed by the spooky atmosphere of intense fear he had imposed in the country -- a reign of fear from which Libyans hope the past day's dramatic events mark a decisive break.

UPDATE: The Libyan rebels' claims to have detained Seif al-Islam Gadhafi turned out to be false as became evident Tuesday when Seif appeared at the Tripoli hotel where foreign journalists are staying, as the Washington Post reported Tuesday. The Libyan opposition National Transition Council (NTC) had not yet provided an explanation Tuesday for the mix-up. The International Criminal Court also acknowledged Tuesday that it had based its earlier statement that Seif Gadhafi was in custody on media reports citing the NTC claim it had detained Seif Gadhafi.

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