The Gaddafis were well prepared, says Saif al-Islam al-Kebi, a Tripoli resident turned rebel who grew up next door to the palatial and heavily fortified residential compound of Mutassim Gaddafi, one of the Colonel's sons and also the dictator's national-security adviser. Over the course of five years in the 1990s, al-Kebi watched, mesmerized, as a team of engineers from a German company constructed a vast underground bunker beneath Mutassim's property.
Hidden beneath the mansion and its ornate lawn, gardens and guesthouse is an underground warren of secret rooms and tunnels. Multiple sets of 10-in.-thick (25 cm) metal doors secure the elaborate hideaway, which includes bunk beds with mattresses still wrapped in plastic, sitting rooms, an industrial kitchen, a laundry room and a fully equipped hospital. "This is the main surgery room," claims al-Kebi, marveling at the sheer volume of equipment as he gives a tour of the place.
But Mutassim might not have spent much time in his bunker. On Monday, Aug. 29, Algerian officials confirmed that four other Gaddafis Muammar's second wife Safia, his daughter Aisha and his sons Hannibal and Mohammed, as well as their spouses and children had surfaced in Algeria, according to the Associated Press. The report came a week after rebels said a convoy was spotted crossing Libya's desert border into Algeria.
And according to one of Hannibal's gardeners, Hannibal's family hadn't been at home for months. "The last time I saw any member of the family was in May, when Saif al-Arab died," says "Moussa," a worker from Niger, referring to a Gaddafi son who was allegedly killed during a NATO bombing raid. The gardener's name has been changed because he remains in Libya and fears for his life. Moussa says Gaddafi kept a house in Hannibal's Tripoli compound, and it was there that Saif al-Arab died in a NATO air strike on May 1 that he says may have been targeting Gaddafi. After that, the family took off, he says. And it wasn't until a month later that he figured out where. "After the bombing, they went to Regatta," he says, naming a wealthy suburb on Tripoli's western outskirts where he says Hannibal kept two houses. "I know because I was told to take his parrot to Regatta." When he drove there, he found Hannibal's bodyguards and driver.
As for the rest of the clan not spotted in Algeria, the rebels say they have no idea where they might be, and rumors are running wild. Gaddafi's heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, who was earlier incorrectly reported by the rebels to have been captured, remains at large. So does Khamis, the head of the feared Khamis special forces brigade, which is believed to have led the assaults against Libyan protesters and rebels since the uprising began in February. Mutassim the son with the underground hospital and a compound surrounded by twin 60-ft.-high (18 m) walls is also gone. And then there's Hanna: the mysterious adopted daughter who Gaddafi claimed was killed in a 1986 U.S. air strike but whose medical-school photo ID was spotted by TIME at Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah home. A rebel spokesman said over the weekend that Khamis may have been killed at a roadblock. But the report could not be confirmed, and previous rebel claims that two Gaddafi sons had been captured turned out to be false.
"They're not going to catch them," says K.A. Paul, an eccentric Evangelical preacher who claims to be a trusted contact of the Gaddafi family. Paul spoke with TIME on Saturday, Aug. 27, before boarding a ship to Malta; he claims to have met repeatedly with Muammar, Saif al-Islam and other regime officials in recent weeks in an effort to broker a peaceful transfer of power. The last time he saw Muammar, he says, was in an underground bunker in Tripoli on Aug. 10, but he believes both Gaddafis remain in the capital. "This is what will happen," he says. "If they try to kill Gaddafi and Saif, they will not succeed easily. Gaddafi will continue what he's doing, calling on his people to fight till the last breath."
Paul is confident that the family has enough resources and supporters to disappear indefinitely. "Sixty percent of Libyans love him to death," he says. "If they fail to catch him through the bombing, after NATO stops in a few weeks, he will try to mobilize his army and his people to create more hell."
The manhunt continues to be a difficult one. The appearance of the Gaddafi convoy on the Libyan-Algerian border lends credence to the popular rebel suspicion that members of the family may be hiding in Sabha, a desert stronghold of the regime, from which Gaddafi recruited many of his forces and mercenaries. "I think they went to Sabha, because it's still safe for them there," says Abdel Hakim al-Sheikhli, a rebel who now stands guard at Mutassim's house. "The rebels have no forces there, and it's near the Algerian and Chadian borders."
It may be no surprise that Algeria welcomed members of the Gaddafi clan with open arms. Gaddafi worked hardest to forge close relations with his fellow African rulers, and he often sought to portray himself as a leader for the continent. His home in Tripoli's Bab al-Aziziyah compound is scattered with photos of Gaddafi posing with African Presidents, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and the now deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And despite many countries' recognition of the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC), the African Union has so far refused to do so as long as fighting persists. Paul lists several of the easiest options for Gaddafi's exodus: "South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Venezuela."
A Gaddafi spokesman, speaking from an undisclosed location allegedly in Libya, made a renewed call for negotiations with the NTC over the weekend, a proposal the council has flatly rejected. The fugitive dictator may have more leverage with the new regime if he can mobilize an insurgency and tribal warfare. As they encounter both snipers and hostile residents in the stronghold neighborhoods they're now seeking to clear, the rebels say regime loyalists still pose a threat. But they'd rather Gaddafi be among them than in some foreign refuge. Says the rebel guard al-Sheikhli: "He's more dangerous abroad, because if he's here, the revolutionaries will keep looking for him, and he'll be hiding. Abroad, he may end up in an African country that won't surrender him to the court." And then, who knows what mischief he might cook up.