Saturday, November 19, 2011

Libyan Rebels Reported to Have Captured Seif al-Islam Gaddafi

November 19, 2011

Libyan Rebels Catch Qaddafi’s Last Fugitive Son

New York Times

ZINTAN, Libya — Libyan militia fighters on Saturday captured Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the last fugitive son and onetime heir apparent of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, setting off nationwide celebrations but also exposing a potential power struggle between former-rebel factions over his handling.

Militia leaders based in Zintan, a western mountain town and stronghold of resistance to Colonel Qaddafi’s regime, said they captured Seif al-Islam early Saturday in the southwestern desert near Awbari, along with a small entourage.

But while transitional government leaders in the capital, Tripoli, promised that Mr. Qaddafi would be closely guarded and turned over to the International Criminal Court to be tried on war crimes charges, leaders in Zintan insisted that they would not hand him over until a formal national government was formed — a process that is in the works but at least a day or two away.

Such insistence on factional power is at the heart of international concerns about Libya’s future. And after Colonel Qaddafi’s capture and killing at the hands of militiamen a month ago, his son’s case will be an important test of Libya’s commitment to the rule of law.

On Saturday, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said he would head to Libya in the next few days to discuss how and where Mr. Qaddafi would be tried. “We are coordinating with the Justice Ministry to ensure that any solution is in accordance with the law,” said the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Leaders in Zintan promised that they would protect Mr. Qaddafi and that justice would take its course.

“We are arranging a very safe place for him,” said Mussa Grife, a member of the Zintan revolutionary movement’s political committee. “The people of Zintan want to leave a good impression for the world and treat Seif according to human rights and according to Islamic values.”

Tellingly, the Transitional National Council’s prime minister, Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, came to Zintan with an entourage of officials to celebrate the capture. “Congratulations to all Libya, all men, women and children,” he said at a news conference here. “Now we can build a new Libya.”

Mr. Keeb emphasized that the government in Tripoli was in no rush to take direct custody of Mr. Qaddafi and that it would accept Zintan’s demands to hold him.

“We trust their ability to take care of this,” he said. “They will keep him in peace, and take care of him, unlike how he treated our people.”

In scenes of celebration outstripped only by news of Colonel Qaddafi’s capture and death last month, Tripoli’s streets erupted in revelry at the news that Mr. Qaddafi had been seized. Vehicles clogged intersections, horns blaring, and militiamen shot their rifles into the sky. In Zintan, thousands of people poured into the streets amid a carnival of fireworks and gunfire.

The capture eliminates perhaps the best hope that loyalists had of rallying a new revolution around the remnants of the Qaddafi family. It also represents a personal transformation that turned Seif al-Islam from the most prominent advocate of changing his father’s Libya into one of the chief architects of the regime’s deadly crackdown on dissent in its final days.

Mr. Grife said Zintan fighters had been following Mr. Qaddafi through the desert using local sources for intelligence about his whereabouts in the past few weeks. When they learned he and a small entourage would try to make a break to leave the country, perhaps bound for Tunisia, they laid a trap for him on Saturday morning along a valley road outside Awbari, an oasis town.

When Zintan fighters blocked the caravan, Mr. Qaddafi broke from his vehicle and was captured on foot. “They tried to fight,” Mr. Grife said. A few shots were fired, but there were no reports of any wounded.

A reporter for Reuters was on the plane with Seif al-Islam as the fighters flew him from Awbari to Zintan. The reporter said that although Mr. Qaddafi appeared very frightened, he was in decent condition. He wore an uncharacteristically heavy beard, and showed the reporter his heavily bandaged right hand, which he said was wounded in a NATO airstrike about a month ago.

As Mr. Qaddafi was driven from the Zintan airport to an undisclosed place for detention, residents who had gathered to see him threw shoes and sandals at the vehicle, a sign of extreme contempt in the Muslim world.

For years, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi cultivated an image at home and abroad as the face of change in Libya. An international playboy in his youth, he went on to earn a doctoral degree at the London School of Economics. He wrote a thesis on the importance of democracy and civil society groups, although accusations later emerged that it had been ghostwritten by consultants working for his father’s government.

He publicly championed the cause of modernizing and liberalizing Libya, including loosening the tight restrictions on political speech his father had maintained for decades, opening up free enterprise and adopting a constitution.

In the staged drama that passed for public political life under Colonel Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam, who is 39, was often portrayed as standing up to an authoritarian old guard around his father, who seemed to push back against his ideas. Some Libyans who dreamed of a freer future pinned their hopes on him and the young clique he led.

Western consultants say Seif al-Islam managed to parlay partial control of Libya’s oil assets and investments to help induce Western businesses and governments to ease Libya’s isolation under his father.

His success helped him emerge as the pre-eminent son and heir apparent among Colonel Qaddafi’s many children, although his brother Muatassim, his father’s national security adviser, was always considered a rival.

But when the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi broke out in late February — taking over the eastern city of Benghazi and for a few days the streets of Tripoli as well — it was Seif al-Islam who delivered the Qaddafi government’s first public response, warning in a long and rambling speech that the government would crush the “rats” who challenged his father’s rule.

Libya, he said, would slide into civil war. To opponents of the Qaddafi government, the son now sounded very much like his father.

During the rebellion and NATO bombing campaign against the Qaddafi government, Seif al-Islam was said to propose to the Western governments a truce centered on the idea that he would lead a transition to electoral democracy. But in public interviews he always insisted that his father should retain a figurehead role, which he sometimes compared to that of the queen of England, and the Western powers never bit.

In his last interview — in early August, less than three weeks before he fled as rebels took Tripoli — Seif al-Islam appeared a changed man, nervous and agitated, wearing a newly grown beard and fingering prayer beads. He had always been a religious Muslim, he said, though his previous image was decidedly secular.

Casting aside any pretense of negotiating peace with the Western-supported rebel leadership, Mr. Qaddafi said in the interview that his father’s government was negotiating a secret deal with a faction of Islamists among the rebels. Together, he said, Qaddafi loyalists and Islamists would turn on the liberals among the rebels, who would be killed or driven into exile, and Libya would become an Islamic state relying on the Koran instead of a constitution. “Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran. So what?”

He added, chuckling, “It is a funny story.”

Libyan Islamists denied the report immediately. Officials of his father’s government denied it the next day. And at least one person close to the Qaddafi family later said that Mr. Qaddafi appeared to be losing his grip.

Clifford Krauss reported from Tripoli, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo. Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.

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