TRIPOLI, Libya - Since the rebel takeover of Tripoli, evidence has been mounting that Moammar Gadhafi may have lied about the death of his adopted baby daughter Hana in a 1986 American airstrike.
The strike hit Gadhafi's home in his Tripoli compound, Bab al-Aziziya, in retaliation for the Libyan-sponsored bombing of a Berlin nightclub earlier that same year that killed two U.S. servicemen. At the time, Gadhafi showed American journalists a picture of a dead baby and claimed it was his adopted daughter Hana - the first public mention that she even existed.
Diplomats almost immediately questioned the claim. But Gadhafi kept the story alive through the years.
Then, when investigations into the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing pointed to a Libyan hand in the attack, some theorized that Gadhafi had ordered it to avenge Hana's death in the U.S. airstrike.
But when Libyan rebels took over Tripoli and Bab al-Aziziya last week, they found a room in Gadhafi's home with Hana's birth certificate and pictures of a young woman with Hana written on the back, possible indications that she lived well beyond infancy. A Tripoli hospital official surfaced, saying Hana worked for him as a surgeon up until the rebels came to town.
And on Tuesday, Swiss officials confirmed that Hana's name had briefly appeared earlier this year on a Swiss government document listing the names of senior Libyan figures targeted for sanctions.
Many Libyans believe Hana was never killed and talked about her existence openly.
Adel Shaltut, a Libyan diplomat at the U.N. in Geneva, said it was common knowledge that Hana Gadhafi wasn't killed in the airstrike.
“All Libyans knew from the very beginning that it's a lie,” he told The Associated Press, claiming that Hana was married and had children.
However, some in Libya believed that after Hana's death, Gadhafi adopted another daughter and gave her the same name in a memorial tribute.
Adding to the mystery, two AP photographs from the 1990s show an adolescent girl identified in captions as Gadhafi's daughter Hana. In one of them from 1999, she is standing next to South African President Nelson Mandela, with his arm around her, during a family visit to Cape Town. Gadhafi's only biological daughter, Aisha, stands on Mandela's other side and Gadhafi's wife Safiya is next to the girl identified as Hana.
In another AP photo from 1996, Gadhafi is seen wiping the face of a girl identified in the caption as his daughter Hana Gadhafi.
Despite these sightings of Hana, in 2006 Gadhafi organized an event called the “Hana Festival for Freedom and Peace” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death. Performers reportedly included Lionel Ritchie and Spanish tenor Jose Carreras.
Last week, after rebels stormed the Bab al-Aziziya compound where Gadhafi and family members lived, journalists saw a room in his home filled with stuffed animals, photos of a young woman with the name Hana written on the back in Arabic and a birth certificate of “Hana Gadhafi.”
Rebels touring the room told reporters that everyone in Libya knew that the daughter who the world thought was dead was in fact alive
Hana's current whereabouts are unknown. Her mother, sister Aisha and two brothers fled to Algeria on Monday, with their spouses and children. She was not named among those who had left the country. Her father and brother Seif al-Islam, once the heir apparent to rule Libya, are believed to still be in Libya.
Gassem Baruni, head of the Tripoli Medical Center, said Hana worked for him as a surgeon before she disappeared last Friday.
“She was very tense and nervous as soon as the revolution started,” Baruni told the AP. “She told me not to treat the rebels, but I told her: 'If we don't treat everyone, it would be a crime.”'
The doctor said he used her influence to stock up the hospital with supplies and medicine, keeping the fact he was co-ordinating with rebels secret from her.
“I pretended that we needed the stuff to treat the Gadhafi troops,” Baruni said.
The British Council confirmed that someone named Hana Gadhafi studied English at the British Council in Tripoli in 2007, and again in 2009.
“We can confirm that a student by the name of Hana Gadhafi did study English with us in Libya. However, we don't have access to any documents as we don't have access to our Tripoli office, which we had to leave earlier this year,” a spokesman told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with council policy.
“Our Country Director in Libya did query this, given reports of Hana Gadhafi's death,” he said.
“The widely held belief in Libya at the time was that this was a different daughter, adopted by Colonel Gadhafi after Hana's death, and given the same name as a tribute. This is, in fact, a common practice in Libya as a memorial to a dead child.”
A Swiss government document earlier this year listed the names of senior Libyan figures that were to be targeted for sanctions briefly included Hana Gadhafi's name, but it was quickly removed, Swiss officials said Tuesday. They were responding to questions by the AP.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Adrian Sollberger, said the list was revised to conform with sanctions imposed by the United Nations. He declined to say why someone with the name Hana Gadhafi had featured on the original sanctions list, and whether Switzerland had evidence the Libyan leader's daughter was alive.
Libyans said Gadhafi wanted to drum up sympathy for himself and hatred toward the west by claiming Hana was killed in 1986 and Gadhafi's son Seif al-Arab was killed in May during a NATO airstrike.
Mohammed Ammar, a Tripoli resident who said his cousin graduated with Hana from medical school last year, was among those who believe the death of Hana was a myth.
“It is not surprising he would lie about his own child's death,” he said. “He is capable of killing a whole population, why not his own child?”