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'Our martyrs' blood did not run in vain'

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Women and children line the street of Misrata to cheer the death of Col. Moammar Gadhafi on Thursday.

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Correspondent

ON THE ROAD TO SIRTE, Libya – It started with confusion. There were rumors on Twitter and then reports by foreign media that Sirte, Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown, had fallen.

A military commander from the Misrata brigade told us "there were still houses to clear," not quite confirming or denying the news. 

When we called the National Transitional Committee's press office, a man said, "Sirte is finished." We asked him how he knew. His reply was, "It was on TV."

En route to Sirte, we began hearing from militiamen at checkpoints that Gadhafi had been captured and was being brought back to Misrata, home to one of the strongest militias that rose up against his 42-year rule.

With no cell signal and amidst general chaos, we couldn't verify anything on the ground.  The only thing that was clear was the gathering force of exultation that was evident even on this lonely stretch of road in the North African desert.

‘Blood did not run in vain!’
We decided to set up for a live shot beside the highway instead of continuing onto Sirte.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Rebel forces cheer on the road from Sirte to Misrata after hearing the news of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's death on Thursday.

Vehicles painted in the colors of the new Libyan flag began gathering around a checkpoint and bridge behind us. Rebel forces driving back west towards Misrata shouted in jubilation. Men fired their guns into the air. Others shouted, “Our martyrs' blood did not run in vain!"

We began hearing that Gadhafi had been killed. Fighters stopped to show us cellphone footage purportedly of his body.  In one video, the body was in the back of a vehicle with a white cloth wrapped around his head.  In another, the body was shirtless and on the ground; men picked him up and turned him over and then covered him.

"He was shot in the neck," said Fathi Bashagha, a Misrata military commander and NATO liaison. He was trying to get back to Misrata, ahead of a large convoy rumored to be carrying Gadhafi's body. 

Moments later, a large convoy of 18-wheelers, pick-up trucks, SUVs, and sedans drove by on the outside lane. 

Shadowing them were a ragtag bunch of vehicles driven by cheering militiamen – so caught up in the moment that a couple rear-ended each other, creating a small traffic jam in front of us.

Questions remain about where Moammar Gadhafi's body was taken after he was captured and killed.  NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

Grim souvenirs
As we continued to try to get official confirmation from either the Misrata military council or the interim government in Tripoli, more fighters stopped to show us "souvenirs." 

One man had a military cap he claimed belonged to Gadhafi. Another showed a ring, a hat, a nine-millimeter handgun, and a bottle of shampoo that he said were taken from the basement housing the former leader.

But by far the most troubling sights were the bodies of what fighters claimed were Moatassam, Gadhafi’s son, and Abu Bakr Yunis, one of Gadhafi's most trusted senior military leaders.  The body of the former appeared to have a bullet hole in the back of his neck; half of the latter's face was a strange shade of blue.

And then there were those who were alive. 
A truck drove by with dozens of men crowded into the back; we assumed they were prisoners because they were not cheering.

One sedan stopped in front of our van.  Rebel fighters proudly scrambled out to show off two men – black Africans, mercenaries perhaps – tied up in their trunk, alive; they looked alert and stared at us quizzically.