SIRTE, Libya (AP) – Libya's information minister said Moammar Gadhafi was killed Thursday when revolutionary forces overwhelmed his hometown, Sirte, the last major bastion of resistance two months after the regime fell. Amid the fighting, a NATO airstrike blasted a fleeing convoy that fighters said was carrying Gadhafi.
The head of Libya's interim government did not immediately confirm Gadhafi's capture or death, and many officials said they were still trying to verify what happened.
Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said he was told that Gadhafi was dead from fighters who said they saw the body.
"Our people in Sirte saw the body," Shammam told The Associated Press. "Revolutionaries say Gadhafi was in a convoy and that they attacked the convoy." He said the government head, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, would officially confirm the death, but it was not clear when. Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, the number two in the administration, called a press conference for 4 p.m. local time (10 a.m EDT)
Al-Jazeera TV showed photos of a man resembling Gadhafi lying dead or severely wounded. Other military officials in the government also said Gadhafi was dead and several revolutionary groups fighting in Sirte also said he was either killed or captured.
Celebratory gunfire and cries of "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" rang out across Tripoli as the reports spread. Cars honked their horns and people hugged each other. In Sirte, the ecstatic former rebels celebrated the city's fall after weeks of bloody siege by firing endless rounds into the sky, pumping their guns, knives and even a meat cleaver in the air and singing the national anthem.
Despite the fall of Tripoli on Aug. 21, Gadhafi loyalists mounted fierce resistance in several areas, including Sirte, preventing Libya's new leaders from declaring full victory in the eight-month civil war. Earlier this week, revolutionary fighters gained control of one stronghold, Bani Walid, and by Tuesday said they had squeezed Gadhafi's forces in Sirte into a residential area of about 700 square yards but were still coming under heavy fire from surrounding buildings.
Reporters at the scene watched as the final assault began around 8 a.m. and ended about 90 minutes later. Just before the battle, about five carloads of Gadhafi loyalists tried to flee the enclave down the coastal highway that leads out of the city. But they were met by gunfire from the revolutionaries, who killed at least 20 of them.
Col. Roland Lavoie, spokesman for NATO's operational headquarters in Naples, Italy, said the alliance's aircraft Thursday morning struck two vehicles of pro-Gadhafi forces "which were part of a larger group maneuvering in the vicinity of Sirte."
But NATO officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance to alliance rules, said the alliance also could not independently confirm whether Gadhafi was killed or captured.
After the battle, revolutionaries began searching homes and buildings looking for any hiding Gadhafi fighters. At least 16 were captured, along with cases of ammunition and trucks loaded with weapons. Reporters saw revolutionaries beating captured Gadhafi men in the back of trucks and officers intervening to stop them.
In an illustration of how difficult and slow the fighting for Sirte was, it took the anti-Gadhafi fighters two days to capture a single residential building.