Image: Ibrahim Elfirjani
Courtesy of Sanad Elfirjani
On the right, Ibrahim Elfirjani is seen on the day he left for the U.S. in 1990 after being part of the Libyan opposition army in Chad. On the back of the photo is written in Arabic: “Today, I’m taking off a uniform that is dear to my heart and I’m waiting for the day that I am going to wear it to fight for justice.” On the left is a photo of Ibrahim in Egypt in 2003. He went there to reunite with his wife and two children, who had fled Libya.
By
msnbc.com
updated 3/31/2011 5:46:19 PM ET 2011-03-31T21:46:19

Age wasn't about to stop Libyan-American Ibrahim Elfirjani from joining the fight to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. So the 60-year-old owner of an auto repair shop left his home in Illinois and trekked to Libya to help the opposition on the frontlines of the conflict.

"I decided my birth country needs me today. … I'm an old man but I have energy to kick this dictator out," Elfirjani, of Orland Park, Ill., told msnbc.com by phone from Libya, during a stop near the Egyptian border to pick up communications equipment for the rebel fighters. "My heart is still young … 25 years old."

Elfirjani is one of an unknown number of Libyan-Americans who have journeyed home to join the fight against Gadhafi. While some have taken up weapons, others are helping in the humanitarian effort, working to create a transitional government or shuttling supplies to the rebels on the frontlines. Their participation comes with a risk: At least one Libyan-American man has been killed in the fighting.

Video: Obama signs secret order to aid rebels (on this page)

"We do whatever we have to do to free our country," Elfirjani said, noting that he had evacuated women and children from the areas of fighting and armed himself with a Kalashnikov rifle for protection.

'We need our freedom'
He arrived in Libya from Egypt on Feb. 22 and was first in the key oil town of Ras Lanouf. But he was soon forced to retrace part of his travels as Gadhafi troops pushed the rebel forces eastward to the country's second largest city of Benghazi in mid-March. At one point, he recalled, a mortar hit the hood of the Land Rover he was riding in.

"For a second, I was waiting for my body and my car to go into pieces … but it never worked (detonated)," he said. "It just hit my car and fell to the ground."

The episode made him feel that he had been given a second chance, and vindicated his efforts in Libya.

"My birth country is always on my mind," he said. "We need our freedom."

Image: Sanad Elfirjani
Sanad Elfirjani joined the humanitarian effort in Libya.
Elfirjani was not alone in Libya: His son, Sanad, also traveled there to help with humanitarian efforts and communications. Though he did not join the fighting, he said he wished he had gotten the chance to, even though a blast at the Rajma base in Benghazi still haunts him.

"I really felt the explosion. I was one of the first people to be there responding to that," said Sanad, 27, an operation manager for an oil company who fled Libya with his mother and sister in 2003. "Seeing people dead everywhere, it was just unbelievable. You step on some body parts. It was very emotional. You think your own people have been killed this way."

Read: Pro-Gadhafi kidnap gangs silencing foes — sometimes for good

He said that it was only later that he realized he had walked through "blood mud" — dirt mixed with blood — as he looked for survivors.

Sanad Elfirjani said he returned home after 10 days in Libya. He said that because his mother did not want to be alone, and since his father's experience as an ex-soldier in the Libyan military made him more useful to the rebels, he felt he had to return.

But strange as it seems, he now bemoans "the most stupid thing" — agreeing to leave — and says he wishes he had stayed.

"You feel like you are part of something that is actually going on," he said. "That was for me the most enjoyable time, even though it was hard and dangerous going to the frontlines."

Read: Surrounded by tanks, snipers, Libyan hospital is fortress of fear

'They go after the family'
Another Libyan-American from the Richmond, Va., area, Khalifa Hifter, was named late last week to lead the rebel army and left for the country two weeks ago, McClatchy Newspapers reported on Saturday.

"He made the decision he had to go inside Libya," Libyan activist Salem alHasi was quoted as saying of Hifter. "With his military experience, and with his strong relationship with officers on many levels of rank, he decided to go and see the possibility of participating in the military effort against Gadhafi."

Image: Muhannad Bensadik, right, with friends
Courtesy of Bensadik family
Muhannad Bensadik, right, stands with a close friend who joined the fighting but later turned back. It is one of the last pictures Muhannad sent to his mother, and was taken in Benghazi after residents took control of the city in late February.
At least one Libyan-American will not be returning from the front. Muhannad Bensadik, a 21-year-old born in Eden, N.C., was killed in the conflict on March 12. He spent most of his life in Libya, though he passed summers in the U.S.

Details of Bensadik's death are sparse. His mother, Suzi Elarabi, 41, said she doesn't know where her son died.

"He didn't even tell me he was close to the fire," she said in a phone interview from Martinsville, Va. "I was so worried. I know Muhannad, he would not rest until this is over and Gadhafi is out."

She learned from one of his friends that he had been shot and killed by Gadhafi forces, though the friend had few details about the incident. A cousin of Muhannad's later told her they had recovered his body and buried him in Libya.

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Elarabi said she moved to the U.S. three years ago and was waiting for Muhannad to join her. She also has a 17-year-old son, Yousef, who was protesting in Benghazi but will travel to the U.S. next week. "I am afraid that something might happen to Yousef, too. They go after the family," she said, referring to Gadhafi's forces.

"I think he is a hero because a lot of people couldn't do what Muhannad did," she said, adding that she had received many emails from Libyans saying they were proud of him. "I'm trying to deal with it, it's very hard. Sometimes I am OK, sometimes I think about Muhannad when he was young, and all the things that passed, and start crying."

Image: Muhannad Bensadik, left, with his father and brother
Muhannad Bensadik, left, with his father Osama and brother Yousef, at a beach in Benghazi late summer 2010.
Others with loved ones who have returned to Libya to join the rebels face a different kind of torture.

Fathia Mahmoud ElHariri, 54, wife of Ibrahim Elfirjani, the auto shop owner, said she was proud of her husband and son Sanad, but was torn because she had already suffered through a long separation from her husband when he was forced into exile following Libya's war with Chad in the 1980s.

"Every day, I am crying for my country and my husband, my family," she said through a translator. "I don't want to go through this same tragedy again. … He left me before for 16 years."

Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)

She fled her home in Libya with simply a handbag, escaping with her children to Egypt before they reunited with Ibrahim in 2003.

"I wish we can go back to our country, all of the family is in Libya," she said. "It's like I am spending most of the time fighting life alone."

'Revolution 101'
It's not just Libyan-Americans who are joining the effort to oust Gadhafi: A number of British-Libyans have also gone to the front, said Hassan Al-Amin, editor of online news website Libya Almostakbal, who is originally from Misrata.

"There are a few people who have gone back to Libya to Benghazi and there are some of them who went to the front. … there are even one or two actually who have been killed," he said.

Despite the risks, Libyan-American Sofyan Amry, a 25-year-old student and musician, left Chicago on Tuesday, bound for Egypt. Once there, he said he intended to hitch a ride with opposition fighters to Benghazi, where he planned to film the conflict and formation of a transitional government, and to help distribute video taken by others.

Image: Sofyan Amry
Courtesy of Sofyan Amry
Sofyan Amry with other Libyan-Americans working to consolidate digital media and eyewitness accounts from Libya in February.

"Almost kind of like a 'Revolution 101,' how they did it, who were the leaders, interview the youth," he said of his mission, noting that he and others working with him also hope to live stream video over the Internet from the frontline using satellite modems.

Though he doesn't plan on taking up arms, he said, "I'll be more than willing to fight if I have to" in self-defense.

Amry said his parents were political dissidents who left Libya believing they would one day return, though his father died without setting foot in his homeland once more. He said his mother was excited about the prospect of moving to Libya — but had mixed emotions about his going there now.

"He never got to see this moment," he said of his father. "But, you know, there are still 7 million other Libyans who hopefully will live to enjoy it.

"I just feel like I can do something. … I have to do something."

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© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Gadhafi forces beat back rebel advance

  1. Closed captioning of: Gadhafi forces beat back rebel advance

    >> correspondent richard engel is in benghazi, libya, again this morning. hey, richard. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, ann. for a while it looked like gadhafi 's troops were on the back foot. they have been able to push back rebels to about a hundred miles from here in benghazi. the toll is clear on the front line . the rebels seem dejected, many appear confused, somber. no sign of the spirit that brought them days ago to within striking distance of gadhafi 's hometown which now seems far away. the rebels have no communication, no commanders, but they do have weapons. artillery, mortars, even surface to surface rockets, but no idea how to use them. on the front line we met 25-year-old adnano tabal. he was studying in canada but dropped out of school to come fight. he bought his own gun, but doesn't know how to load it.

    >> we need more weapons. i swear to god there are people with nothing.

    >> reporter: he left in a car for a week living on steal bread and tuna fish . he was almost killed by a rocket attack.

    >> are you okay?

    >> i'm okay. i don't care about the rocket. i don't care. i want to die actually, if i can.

    >> reporter: why?

    >> it's honor to us. it's freedom. we want freedom.

    >> reporter: their enemy is outthinking them. until now it's been easy for western pilots to identify and destroy government tanks, but now that gadhafi is using jeepss that look just like the rebel vehicles, air support is much harderer. on a mission to protect civilians, it's become sieve cult to know who to bomb. the terrain is a decisive factor in the war which gadhafi 's forces are using to their advantage. the rebels stay mostly on or near the main tarmac roads. gadhafi 's forces, now in that direction, are also on the roads and engaging the rebels , but simultaneously gadhafi 's troops are going out in small teams with mortars in jeeps through the open desert to flank the rebels and catch them in the crossfire. the rebels have one invaluable asset.

    >> it's my country, my people.

    >> reporter: heart. we have talked about arming the rebels and their capabilities. on the front line we saw some rebels try to fire a mortar without securing it, so it went wildly off in the wrong direction. i couldn't believe it. we saw them aim a rocket, what we thought at gadhafi 's forces but it was pointed the wrong way and it went in the opposite direction toward a civilian city. they fired a rocket in the wrong direction.

    >> that's really unbelievable. richard engel , thank you very much.

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Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years

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