Analysis: Libya's Elusive Desert Fox
Despite the frenzy of media speculation, no one knows where Muammar Qaddafi really is.
Rebels have claimed they had Qaddafi in their grasp several times during the chaotic, ill-coordinated effort capture the fugitive strongman that got underway even as they overran his compound in Tripoli just weeks ago.
Led by competing factions of military commanders and bounty hunters, as well as Libyan commandos commissioned by civilian leaders, it’gres become increasingly clear the rebels have no firm leads on Qaddafi's true whereabouts.
Most of the leads come from Qaddafi's tribal heartland, a vast triangle of scrub and desert land between his coastal home town of Sirte, east of Tripoli; the oasis town of Bani Walid in the west; and the heavily garrisoned city of Sabha on the edge of the Sahara in the south.
And no one knows how many of those may be misinformation planted by Qaddafi agents intended to lead his pursuers into a field of smoke and mirrors.
On Monday, Anees Al Sharif, a member of the civilian-run Supreme Security Committee in Tripoli, said he had received solid information that Qaddafi had been seen 12 miles south of loyalist-held Sirte just two days ago, preparing to head farther south toward Sabha.
But a member of the rebels National Transitional Council (NTC) said he had received "reliable information from a person close to Qaddafi" that put the former Libyan leader's location closer to Bani Walid.
And Wednesday morning another Libyan official - even as rebels announced they had Qaddafi 'surrounded' in an area as big as 50 square miles - said he had intelligence Qaddafi was already heading south to follow elements of his southern military command into exile in Burkina Faso.
The manhunt for Qaddafi is an important priority both for the opposition and for many Libyan civilians who say they will not feel truly safe until the former dictator is captured or killed - especially in light of his promise to continue the fight and turn Libya into "hell" if need be.
Two separate rewards of 2 million Libyan dinars and 6 million dinars have been offered for Gaddafi's capture or death, officials said, which has helped encourage the flow of information but also prompted some rebels to go freelance in trying to catch him - but it has also inundated them with rumors and innuendo.
And NATO has brought its full technical knowledge to bear - so far to no avail
Qaddafi is said to be avoiding the use of satellite phones that NATO could trace. And due to fears of an attack from the air which has been a feature of his rule since a US airstrike on his main compound in Tripoli in 1986, Qaddafi also discarded his usual four-wheel-drive vehicles for smaller cars, according to witness accounts cited by rebel commanders.
NATO analysts say they do not think he is travelling in the kind of large convoy that could be easily targeted by Nato warplanes, and acknowledge they - like everyone else - have no idea Qaddafi is.
Making it more difficult, the analysts say, are the "massive" amounts of loyalist, rebel and civilian traffic mixed up on the roads connecting the three cities at the points of the triangle.
The territory also is so vast experts say it would be difficult to spot from the air a convoy that could be sheltering Gaddafi, and that problem will only get worse if he makes it to the vastness of the Libyan Sahara - a region hostile to the coastal rebellion and filled with Tawaweq tribesman likely to offer Qaddafi more hospitality than his pursuers.
Experts say the manhunt could take as long as it took US forces to catch Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but by then he may be out of the country and leading an insurgency from abroad.
"Unless he practices impeccable communications security and impeccable operational security, he is going to be vulnerable," a NATO spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on press contacts told reporters.
But So far Qaddafi has proven as canny as he is eccentric. And as the rebels chase down false trails, rumors, and innuendo the media firestorm so loved by the spotlight-hogging Qaddafi continues to burn in Libya.