Gaddafi's brutal four decades in power
Issued on: Modified:
The grim and eccentric rule of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi began with a bloodless coup in 1969 and ended in a bloodbath 42 years later.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Arab world's longest-serving ruler, was killed on Thursday in an attack by forces loyal to Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) on his hometown of Sirte, the last major bastion of his crumbling regime, NTC officials have announced. People cheered in the streets of the capital of Tripoli and waved the country’s new flag upon hearing of the leader’s death.
Gaddafi, who was famously labelled the "mad dog of the Middle East" by former US president Ronald Reagan, was the uncontested ruler of oil-rich Libya for a full 42 years. But his iron-clad grip on the country began loosening in February 2011, when a popular revolt gained control over most of the east and parts of western Libya.
True to form, Gaddafi responded with a brutal crackdown that plunged the country into a full-blown civil war. Despite the crucial support of NATO strikes, it took rebel forces a full six months to sweep into the capital city of Tripoli, and a further two months to track down the elusive colonel. The European Union said Gaddafi’s death, if confirmed, marked the “end of an era of despotism.”
Tensions with the West
Widely viewed as a political maverick, Gaddafi came to power in Libya after a bloodless coup in 1969. His stated aim was to create a regime underpinned by "Islamic socialism", a philosophy that was laid out in his Green Book from the 1970s. By the end of the decade, a system of government by people's committee was born although in reality the country had become a police state ruled by one man.
Gaddafi turned Libya into a haven for anti-Western radicals, where terrorist groups received weapons and financial support.
Tensions between Tripoli and the West reached a peak in 1988, when 270 people died in the bombing of a Pan Am plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Two Libyans were accused of the attacks, but Gaddafi refused to hand them over. UN sanctions followed, crippling the country's oil-dependent economy. It was not until 2003 that Tripoli assumed responsibility for the tragedy, a move that signalled a warming in relations between Libya and its onetime detractors.
In subsequent years, Gaddafi held meetings with several Western heads of state, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2009. Ever the eccentric, the Libyan leader displayed a penchant for safari suits and sunglasses, travelling under the watchful eyes of a bevy of female bodyguards.
Nevertheless, Gaddafi was for many years considered a shrewd politician who realised the need to bring his country in from the cold. That, however, was not enough for Libya's disenchanted youth, angered by rising unemployment and the failure to benefit from the country's considerable oil wealth.
Discontent boils over
Anti-regime protests broke out on February 15, prompting Gaddafi to order an extensive crackdown, vowing to fight on until “the last drop of blood”. After opening fire on protesters in Tripoli, pro-Gaddafi forces used tanks and airplanes to launch a counter-offensive against the rebels. In mid-March, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising a 10-country coalition led by the United States, France and Britain to take “necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi forces.
Gaddafi remained defiant, but his public appearances became less frequent after one of his sons was killed in an April operation in Tripoli led by NATO, which had taken over control of the international coalition. With Russian and Turkish support for his regime fading, the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant for his arrest, and rebels taking control of a handful of key western towns, pressure on Gaddafi mounted all summer. But he continued to thumb his nose at his adversaries, repeatedly urging his supporters to “prepare for the battle” to take back rebel-held cities.
On August 22 rebels brandishing opposition flags and firing triumphant shots into the air drove into Tripoli’s Green Square, which they promptly renamed Martyrs’ Square. But when they broke into the colonel’s heavily guarded compound in the Libyan capital, Gaddafi was nowhere to be found. It was widely believed that the fugitive leader was either hiding with Tuareg fighters in the country’s southern desert or that he had taken refuge in his hometown of Sirte.
After a bloody two-month siege, forces loyal to Libya’s new interim government finally captured Sirte on Thursday. Initial reports said Gaddafi was injured in the legs and head. Soon after, NTC officials said the former strongman had succumbed to his injuries.