Libya’s veteran leader Moamer Kadhafi, a former revolutionary whose capital has been overrun by rebels and who has had two sons captured, has gone underground after having vowed to go down fighting.
With his exact whereabouts unknown, he clung to power in Tripoli for months in defiance of NATO air strikes and a revolt that turned into civil war.
Libyan rebels have acknowledged that victory will not be theirs until the capture of Kadhafi, the self-styled “king of kings” in the African continent and larger-than-life figure with an unorthodox style all of his own.
“We will not, we will not abandon Tripoli to the occupants and their agents. I am with you in this battle,” the Libyan strongman said in an audio tape broadcast on Sunday.
“We do not surrender and, by God’s grace, we will emerge victorious.”
If he survives the revolution, the flamboyant Kadhafi is now more likely to return to the world stage at the International Criminal Court, which has indicted him for alleged war crimes.
Renowned for his extravagant dress sense and rambling rhetoric, the embattled Libyan leader, 69, came up against an unprecedented challenge to his rule after anti-regime protests erupted on February 15.
His appearances have since been reduced to scratchy audio tape appeals to his supporters.
While witnesses reported bloodshed, massacres and overwhelmed morgues after the indiscriminate shooting of civilians, Kadhafi dismissed the youth-led uprising and played up the revolution which brought him to power decades ago.
As a young colonel, Kadhafi on September 1, 1969 led a coup overthrowing the Western-backed elderly King Idriss and quickly established himself as a belligerent and unpredictable leader.
Reputedly born in a Bedouin tent in the desert near Sirte on June 7, 1942, Kadhafi alienated the West soon after seizing power, accusing it of launching a “new crusade” against the Arabs.
His idol was Egyptian president and fervent Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, and he also variously declared himself a fan of Stalin and Hitler.
For decades reportedly linked to a spate of international terror attacks, Kadhafi’s Libya was accused of using its oil wealth to fund and arm rebel groups across Africa and beyond.
Libya became an international pariah in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing, but relations began to thaw when it agreed in 2003 to pay compensation to the families of the 270 people killed.
Kadhafi also renounced terrorism and declared in 2003 that he was giving up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, prompting the lifting of UN sanctions.
The declaration also shored up dramatically Libya’s ties with the West and was crowned with a visit in September 2008 by then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
In February 2009, Kadhafi was elected chairman of the African Union, after having grown disillusioned with Arab unity and months after African tribal dignitaries bestowed on him the title of “king of kings.”
He is known for receiving world leaders in a Bedouin tent rather than in palatial buildings, and dresses in colourful flowing robes, surrounded by an entourage of women bodyguards.
Kadhafi’s Libya has often been the focus of international attention.
In 2007, Tripoli released Bulgarian medics who had spent eight years in jail for allegedly infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV-tainted blood.
In 2008, the festive homecoming of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, who was released by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds, triggered fury in the United States.
And an apology to Libya the same year by Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz over the 2007 arrest of one of Kadhafi’s sons, Hannibal, drew harsh criticism across the Alpine nation.
But the Arab world’s longest-serving leader still managed to rile the West and Arab leaders with provocative outbursts.
In July 2009, he blasted the UN Security Council as a form of “terrorism” in a speech at a Non-Aligned Movement summit.
In March the same year, he hurled insults at now Saudi King Abdullah at an Arab summit, telling him: “You are always lying and you’re facing the grave and you were made by Britain and protected by the United States.”
Kadhafi can be quick to praise himself. “I am the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims,” he has said.
Having proclaimed Libya a Jamahiriya or “state of the masses” run by local committees in March 1977, Kadhafi is officially known as “guide of the revolution” as he has always shunned formal titles such as president.
He donned a white glove at an Arab summit to avoid “soiling his hand” by shaking with Arab kings.
Kadhafi’s revolutionary “Green Book,” also published in 1977, offers “a third theory of the world” between capitalism and socialism that he vaunts as the only real solution for humanity.
Before the uprising, he had reportedly been grooming son Seif al-Islam — one of eight children plus an adopted daughter who was killed in a US bombing raid in 1986 — as his successor. Seif fell into rebel hands on Sunday.