Breaking: Gaddafi flees Tripoli? Update: Two military pilots land in Malta for asylum

We’ve been hearing rumors of this since last night, but nothing substantive has been reported on Moammar Gaddafi’s whereabouts.  His son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared on national television yesterday insisting that his father was fighting with the army and would not retreat until the “last bullet,” but the British Foreign Secretary says diplomatic sources suggest that the Libyan dictator may be looking for that bullet a long way from home:

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday he had seen some information to suggest Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi had fled the country and was on his way toVenezuela. …

Diplomats said Hague was not referring to rumors circulating in the media about Gaddafi’s whereabouts, but to separate sources for the information.

The destination makes some sense.  Both countries belong to OPEC, for instance, but the relationship between Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez is closer than that.  In September 2009, the AP reported that the two leaders had agreed to strengthen diplomatic ties to fight “imperialism” of the wealthy nations:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi signed a declaration Monday night decrying what they call attempts by powerful Western countries to equate struggles against colonialism with terrorism.

In the declaration, Venezuela and Libya “reject intentions to link the legitimate struggle of the people for liberty and self-determination” with terrorism, but also adds that they “reiterate the importance of countering terrorism in all its forms.”

Neither of the two leaders commented publicly on the document. It does not specifically name any Western country, but Gadhafi mentioned both the United States and Britain during a speech after the signing.

The New York Times reports that Gaddafi’s forces have lost control of most of the capital now, and are on the retreat:

The 40-year-rule of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi appeared to teeter Monday as his security forces retreated to a few buildings in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, fires burned unchecked and senior government officials and diplomats announced defections. The country’s second-largest city remained under the control of rebels.

Security forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi defended a handful of strategic locations, including the state television headquarters and the presidential palace, witnesses reported from Tripoli. Fires from the previous night’s rioting burned at many intersections, most stores were shuttered, and long lines were forming for a chance to buy bread or gas.

In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials — including the justice minister and members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations — announced their resignations. And protesters in Benghazi, the second-largest city where the revolt began and more than 200 were killed, issued a list of demands calling for a secular interim government led by the army in cooperation with a council of Libyan tribes.

Venezuela denies that Gaddafi is coming their way:

A senior source in the Venezuelan government denied on Monday reports that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was traveling to the South American oil-producing nation led by his ally President Hugo Chavez.

The Caracas government “denies such information,” the source told Reuters.

We’ll soon see.  If Gaddafi was looking for a way out of Libya, he would have few options in the region.  With popular revolts flaring up in most of the Muslim nations of north Africa and southwest Asia, he’d need to find somewhere far away for a safe haven, and Venezuela would perhaps be the only country where Gaddafi would feel safe.  And if he’s not outbound from Libya, then why hasn’t Gaddafi made his presence known on Libyan state television, leaving the impression of a power vacuum at the top at the worst possible time?

Update: The Daily Mail says Gaddafi has fled Tripoli, and his forces have lost the state television building, but he may be preparing a last stand at Sebha:

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is believed to have fled the capital Tripoli after anti-government demonstrators breached the state television building and set government property alight.

Protesters appear to have gained a foothold in Tripoli as banks and government buildings were looted while demonstrators have claimed they have taken control of the second city Benghazi. …

A source at Tripolis Mitiga Airport said he saw three planes leaving early this morning.

Gaddafi was on one, said the source. The planes were heading down south – to Sebha.

The claim was supported by at least two pro-democracy campaigners who said they had also seen the aircraft leaving.

If Gaddafi has lost Benghazi and fled Tripoli, then there isn’t much ground left for a last stand.

Update II: Has the Libyan air force begun to panic?:

Two Libyan air force jets landed in Malta on Monday and their pilots asked for political asylum amid a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters in Libya, a military source said. …

The source, who insisted he not be identified further, said the jet pilots — both Libyan air force colonels — had communicated from the air that they wanted political asylum. They had left from a base near Tripoli and had flown low over Libyan airspace to avoid detection, the source said.