By Tim Gaynor and Taha Zargoun
SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi made his final dash for freedom shortly before dawn prayers. Libya's leader, a few dozen loyal bodyguards and the head of his now non-existent army Abu Bakr Younis Jabr, broke out of the two-month siege of his hometown Sirte and, forming a convoy of six dozen vehicles, raced through the outskirts to the west.
They did not get far.
French aircraft struck military vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces near Sirte at about 8:30 a.m. (0630 GMT), said officials.
Images and then video footage of the drama that followed were soon whizzing around the globe: a blood-stained and shaken Muammar Gaddafi dragged by angry fighters cuts away before what could have been the inglorious end, leaving open the question of how exactly the dictator died.
Interviews conducted separately with those who say they were present build up a picture Gaddafi's final hours, and together with the footage, give clues about his last stand and demise.
Gaddafi was still alive when he was captured outside Sirte. In video, filmed by a bystander in the crowd, he is shown dazed and wounded being heaved off a bonnet of a Toyota pick-up, dragged toward a car, then pulled to the ground by his hair.
"Keep him alive, keep him alive!" someone shouts.
But another man in the crowd lets out a high-pitched hysterical scream. Gaddafi then goes out of view and gunshots ring out.
"THEY BEAT HIM"
"They captured him alive and while he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him," one senior National Transitional Council source told Reuters. "He might have been resisting."
In what appeared to contradict the events in the video, Libya's ruling NTC said Gaddafi was shot in the head in crossfire between government troops and his own supporters after his capture. He died from the wound minutes before reaching hospital, the prime minister said, but no order had been given to kill him.
A Reuters witness who saw Gaddafi's body in Misrata on Friday said it bore a bullet hole in the side of the head, as well as a large bruise on one side and scratch marks. But who fired the shot and when is still unclear.
Another Reuters reporter came under fire from a Gaddafi gunman at the scene of his leader's capture still holding out some two hours after the former strongman was seized so it is possible troops were shot at as they took him away.
Gaddafi called the rebels who rose up against his 42 years of one-man rule "rats," but in the end it was he who was captured cowering in a drainage pipe full of rubbish and filth.
"He called us rats, but look where we found him," said Ahmed Al Sahati, a 27-year-old government fighter, standing next to two stinking drainage pipes under a six-lane highway near Sirte.
Two miles west of Sirte, there were three clusters of cars and pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns burned out, smashed and smoldering -- one group of 11 vehicles next to an electricity substation, three cars in a field and another cluster of seven pick-ups in another field.
They had clearly been hit by a force far beyond anything the motley army the former rebels has assembled during eight months of revolt to overthrow the once feared leader.
Inside some of the trucks still in their seats sat the charred skeletal remains of drivers and passengers killed instantly by the strike. Other bodies lay mutilated and contorted strewn across the grass.
There were 95 bodies in all, many of them black Africans.
Less than half were burned alive in the vehicles. Others appeared to have been killed, some of them cut in two, by heavy caliber guns from either an aircraft or from ground fire. Others still appeared to have been killed by fragmentation wounds, possibly from exploding rockets and ammunition in the pick-ups.
Government fighter Ahmed al-Masalati from Misrata said he was there. He said Gaddafi's convoy escaped at 6:30 am and went around a roundabout and came under fire from government forces.
"They were trapped in these positions," he said, pointing to the field. "At 8:15 a NATO jet came in, a Mirage. It shot at the group of 11 cars then made another pass and shot at other group at the north end who were held up in seven cars."
That account was confirmed by a Gaddafi prisoner on Friday, Jibril Abu Shnaf, who was captured not far from the convoy.
"I was cooking for the other guys, when all of a sudden they came in and said 'come on, we're leaving'. I got in a civilian car and joined the end of the convoy. We tried to escape along the coast road. But we came under heavy fire, so we tried another way," he told Reuters while in custody in the town of Sirte.
When the air strike came in the convoy had already stopped "but I don't know why, I was just following the others," he said. "Then the only thing I saw was dead bodies all around, dust and debris. It went dark," Shnaf said.
"I saw this guy running," he said, gesturing toward one other prisoner besides him, "and I just followed him. I had no idea Muammar was with us until they (his captors) told us."
Gaddafi himself escaped the carnage.
Mansour Daou, leader of Gaddafi's personal bodyguards, was with the ousted leader shortly before he died. He told al Arabiya television that after the air strike the survivors had "split into groups and each group went its own way."
Gaddafi and a handful of his men appeared to have made their way through a stand of trees and taken refuge in the two drainage pipes under the highway.
But NTC fighters were hot on their tail.
"I was with Gaddafi and Abu Bakr Younis Jabr and about four volunteer soldiers," Daou said, adding he had not witnessed his leader's death because he had fallen unconscious after being wounded in the back by a shell explosion.
"MY MASTER IS HERE"
Government fighter Saleem Bakeer said he was there. Other NTC militiamen who also said they were present and, separately interviewed in different locations, all named each other as also having been at the scene and their stories matched closely. One man had what he said was Gaddafi's golden gun.
"At first we fired at them with anti-aircraft guns, but it was no use," said Bakeer, while being feted by his comrades near the road and the drainage pipes. "Then we went in on foot.
"One of Gaddafi's men came out waving his rifle in the air and shouting surrender, but as soon as he saw my face he started shooting at me," he told Reuters.
"Then I think Gaddafi must have told them to stop. 'My master is here, my master is here', he said, 'Muammar Gaddafi is here and he is wounded'," said Bakeer.
"We went in and brought Gaddafi out. He was saying 'what's wrong? What's wrong? What's going on?'. Then we took him and put him in the car," Bakeer said.
At the time of his capture, Gaddafi was already wounded with gunshots to his leg and to his back, Bakeer said.
One of the others who said he took part in the capture of the man who ruled Libya for 42 years said Gaddafi was shot and wounded at the last minute by one of his own men.
"One of Muammar Gaddafi's guards shot him in the chest," said Omran Jouma Shawan.
There were also other versions of events. NTC official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters Gaddafi had been finally cornered in a compound in Sirte after hours of fighting, and wounded in a gun battle with NTC forces.
He said Gaddafi kept repeating "What is the matter? What's going on? What do you want?" and resisted as NTC fighters seized him. He added that Gaddafi died of his wounds as he was being transported in an ambulance.
"He was bleeding from his stomach. It took a long time to transport him. He bled to death (in the ambulance)," he said.
Another NTC official, speaking to Reuters anonymously, gave a violent account of Gaddafi's death: "They (NTC fighters) beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war."
Some video footage showed what appeared to be Gaddafi's lifeless body being loaded into an ambulance in Sirte.
Fallen electricity cables partially covered the entrance to the drainage pipes and the bodies of three men, apparently Gaddafi bodyguards lay at the entrance to one end, one in shorts probably due to a bandaged wound on his leg.
Four more bodies lay at the other end of the pipes. All black men, one had his brains blown out, another man had been decapitated, his dreadlocked head lying beside his torso.
Army chief Jabr was also captured alive, Bakeer said, but NTC officials later announced he was also dead.
Joyous government fighters fired their weapons in the air, shouted "Allahu Akbar" and posed for pictures. Others wrote graffiti on the concrete parapets of the highway. One said simply: "Gaddafi was captured here."
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Misrata and Samia Nakhoul in Amman; Writing by Jon Hemming)