Exclusive - The capture of Gaddafi's son
Sun Nov 20, 2011 8:56pm GMT
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Saif al-Islam Gaddafi speaking during an interview in Zintan November 20,
2011. REUTERS/Zintan Media Council via Reuters TV
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
OBARI, Libya (Reuters) - The chic black sweater and jeans were gone. So too
the combat khaki T-shirt of his televised last stand in Tripoli. Designer
stubble had become bushy black beard after months on the run.
But the rimless glasses, framing those piercing eyes above that straight
fine nose, gave him away despite the flowing nomad robes held close across
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, doctor of the London School of Economics, one-time
reformer turned scourge of the rebels against his dictator father, was now a
prisoner, bundled aboard an old Libyan air force transport plane near the
oil-drilling outpost of Obari, deep in the Sahara desert.
The interim government's spokesman billed it as the "final act of the Libyan
drama." But there would be no closing soliloquy from the lead player, scion
of the dynasty that Muammar Gaddafi, self-styled "king of kings," had once
hoped might rule Africa.
A Reuters reporter aboard the flight approached the 39-year-old prisoner as
he huddled on a bench at the rear of the growling, Soviet-era Antonov. The
man who held court to the world's media in the early months of the Arab
Spring was now on a 90-minute flight bound for the town of Zintan near
He sat frowning, silent and seemingly lost in thought for part of the way,
nursing his right hand, bandaged around the thumb and two fingers. At other
times he chatted calmly with his captors and even posed for a picture.
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
Gaddafi's run had come to an end just a few hours earlier, at dead of night
on a desert track, as he and a handful of trusted companions tried to thread
their way through patrols of former rebel fighters intent on blocking their
escape over the border.
"At the beginning he was very scared. He thought we would kill him," said
Ahmed Ammar, one of the 15 fighters who captured Gaddafi. The fighters, from
Zintan's Khaled bin al-Waleed Brigade, intercepted the fugitives' two 4x4
vehicles 40 miles out in the desert.
"But we talked to him in a friendly way and made him more relaxed and we
said, 'We won't hurt you'."
The capture of Saif al-Islam is the latest dramatic chapter in the series of
revolts that have swept the Arab world. The first uprising toppled the Ben
Ali government in Tunisia early this year.
The upheaval spread to Egypt, forcing out long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in
February; swept Libya, where the capital Tripoli fell to rebels this summer
and Muammar Gaddafi died after being beaten and abused by captors last
month; and is now threatening the Assad family's four-decade grip on Syria.
Saif al-Islam was the smiling face of Muammar Gaddafi's power structure. He
won personal credibility at the highest echelons of international society,
especially in London, where he helped tidy up the reputation of Libya via a
personal charitable foundation. He threw that reputation away in the
uprising, emerging as one of the hardest of hard-liners against the rebels.
This account of his capture and his final month on the run is based on
interviews with the younger Gaddafi's captors and the prisoner himself. The
scenes of his flight into captivity were witnessed by the Reuters reporter
and a Reuters cameraman and photographer who were also aboard the plane.
FACING DEATH PENALTY
Caught exactly a month after his father met a violent end, Saif al-Islam
Gaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague on
charges of crimes against humanity - specifically for allegedly ordering the
killing of unarmed protesters last spring. Libya's interim leaders want him
to stand trial at home and say they won't extradite him; the justice
minister said he faces the death penalty.
His attempt to flee began on October 19, under NATO fire from the tribal
bastion of Bani Walid, 100 miles from the capital. Ammar and his fellow
fighters said they believed he had been hiding since then in the desolate
tracts of the mountainous Brak al-Shati region.
Aides who were captured at Bani Walid said Saif al-Islam's convoy had been
hit by a NATO air strike in a place nearby called Wadi Zamzam - "Holy Water
River." Since then, there had been speculation that nomadic tribesmen once
lionised by his father might have been working to spirit him across Libya's
southern borders - perhaps, like his surviving brothers, sister and mother,
into Niger or Algeria.
He did not get that far. Obari is a good 200 miles from either. But his
captors believe he was headed for Niger, once a beneficiary of Muammar
Gaddafi's oil-fuelled largesse, which has granted asylum to Saif al-Islam's
"WHO ARE YOU?"
Ammar said his unit, scouring the desert for weeks, received a tip-off that
a small group of Gaddafi loyalists - they did not know who - would be
heading on a certain route towards Obari. Lying in wait, they spotted two
all-terrain vehicles grinding through the darkness.
"We fired in the air and into the ground in front of them," Ammar said. The
small convoy pulled up, perhaps hoping to brazen it out.
"Who are you?" al-Ajami Ali al-Atari, the leader of the squad, demanded to
know of the man he took to be the main passenger in the group.
"Abdelsalam," came the reply. "I am a camel herder."
It's a common enough name, though it means "servant of peace" in Arabic;
Saif al-Islam's real name means "Sword of Islam."
Atari, sizing the man up, took Ammar aside and whispered: "I think that's
Turning back to the car, a Toyota Land cruiser of a type favoured on these
rugged desert tracks, Ammar said: "I know who you are. I know you."
Speaking to journalists on Sunday, Atari said that, in the darkness, "Saif
jumped out and tried to take cover behind the car." He then tried to conceal
himself under a bundle of clothes, covering it with sand.
"But when we told him to surrender he did," Atari said. "The operation was
simple and without any resistance or casualties. We treated Saif al-Islam
properly. No one laid a finger on him because we are men of honour."
One of Gaddafi's companions was wounded in the leg by a ricochet when the
snatch-squad fired into the ground, he said, but, aboard the plane, the
injury did not appear too serious.
CASH AND KALASHNIKOVS
The game was up. The militiamen retrieved several Kalashnikov rifles, a hand
grenade and, one of the Zintani fighters said, some $4,000 (2,531.97 pounds)
in cash from the vehicles, as well as a satellite telephone.
It was a tiny haul from a man whose father commanded one of the
best-equipped armies in Africa and who is suspected by many of holding the
keys - in his head - to billions stolen from the Libyan state and stashed in
secret bank accounts abroad.
"He didn't say anything," Ammar said. "He was very scared and then
eventually he asked where we are from, and we said we are Libyans. He asked
from which city and we said Zintan."
Zintan sits far from the spot of Gaddafi's capture in the Western, or
Nafusa, Mountains, just a couple of hours drive south of the capital. The
people of Zintan put together an effective militia in the uprising, and they
are seeking to parlay their military prowess into political clout as new
leaders in Tripoli try to form a government.
At Obari, a fly-speck of a place dominated by the oil operations of a
Spanish company, Zintan fighters have extended their writ since the war deep
into traditionally pro-Gaddafi country peopled by Tuaregs, nomadic tribes
who recognise no borders.
The Zintanis are also a force in the capital. On Saturday morning, the
Antonov flew to Obari from Tripoli, bearing the new tricolour flag of "Free
Libya" - and piloted by a former air force colonel turned Zintan rebel. Just
a few minutes after it landed, the purpose of the flight became clear.
FLIGHT TO CAPTIVITY
Five prisoners, escorted by about 10 fighters in an array of desert
camouflage, piled aboard, ranging themselves on benches along the sides of
the spartan hold of the Antonov An-32, which is designed to carry four dozen
Two of the men were handcuffed together. A third had his arms cuffed in
front of him. A dozen or so bulky black bags were carried in, and some thin
mattresses - the scant belongings of the prisoners, their captors said.
All wore casual, modern dress - with the exception of Saif al-Islam.
His brown robe, turban and face scarf, open sandals on his feet, were
typical of the Tuaregs of the region. The choice of costume offered
concealment for a man more commonly seen in sharp suits and smart casual
wear, and a visual echo of his late father's penchant for dressing up.
As they shuffled on the benches, rifle butts scraping on the metal floor,
one of the guards said: "He is afraid now."
The pilot, though, said that he had had a paternal word with the 39-year-old
captive and put him at ease before he was brought on board.
"LIKE A SMALL CHILD"
"I spoke to him like he was a small child," said Abdullah al-Mehdi, a
diminutive, heavily moustachioed ball of energy in a green jumpsuit. His
ambition - typical of Zintanis in these anarchic days in Libya - is to start
up a whole new air force.
"I told him he would not be beaten and he wouldn't be hurt and I gave my
word," he said.
He and the other two crew in the cockpit chain-smoked their way through the
flight, navigating over the barren wastes the old-fashioned way, on analogue
instruments, with just occasional help from a new GPS device clamped
awkwardly to the windscreen.
The howl of the propellers was numbing, and there was little conversation
during the flight.
Saif al-Islam by turns stared ahead or turned back to crane his neck out at
the land he once was in line to rule. Every so often, holding his scarf
across his mouth Tuareg-fashion, he would say a few words to a guard.
The calm was in stark contrast to the frenzy that greeted the capture of
Muammar Gaddafi on October 20 as he tried to flee the siege of his hometown
of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast.
Fighters from the long embattled city of Misrata filmed themselves on
cellphones hammering the fallen leader, howling for revenge and inflicting a
series of indignities on him before his body was displayed to crowds of
sightseers for several days.
The reporter caught Saif al-Islam's eye a few times, but on each occasion he
looked away. At one point he asked for water, and a bottle from the
journalist's pack was passed up to him. The other prisoners, too, did not
want to speak.
After the plane bumped down on the tarmac in the mountains at Zintan, it was
surrounded within minutes by hundreds of people - some cheering, some
clearly angry, many shouting the rebels' Islamic battle cry, "Allahu Akbar!"
(God is Greatest).
Some held up cellphones to the few windows in the cargo hold, hoping to
catch a snap of the most wanted man in Libya. At one point others were
rattling the catches of the doors, intent it seemed on storming inside.
While his companions, clearly nervous, huddled together, Saif al-Islam
seemed calm. He sat back and waited. The plane rocked gently as crowds
clambered over the wings. The prisoners talked a little to each other and
Asked about The Hague court's statement that he was in touch through
intermediaries about turning himself in to the international judges - who
cannot impose the death penalty - he seemed to take offence: "It's all lies.
I've never been in touch with them."
After more than an hour, the fighters decided they could get the other four
captives off. They were helped out of the front door. Gaddafi remained where
he was, on his own at the back, silent and aloof.
A further hour went by, the crowds still idling on the runway. The guards
suggested it was time for the journalists to leave.
Moving back to speak to the solitary Gaddafi, the reporter asked, in
English: "Are you OK?"
"Yes," he replied, looking up.
The reporter pointed to his injured hand. He said simply: "Air force, air
"Yes. One month ago."
The reporter moved past him to the aircraft steps. Gaddafi looked up and,
without a word, briefly took her hand.
Later, television footage showed him being helped off the plane as people
among the crowd on the tarmac tried to slap him. His captors shoved him into
a car and sped off for a hiding place somewhere in town.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud al-Farjani in Obari and Oliver Holmes and
Taha Zargoun in Zintan; Writing by Alastair Macdonald in Tripoli; Editing by
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
After Gaddafi son, spy chief captured
Sun Nov 20, 2011 9:19pm GMT
By Alastair Macdonald and Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Abdullah al-Senussi, Libya's feared former intelligence
chief, was cornered and captured at a remote desert homestead on Sunday, a
day after Muammar Gaddafi's son was seized by Libyan fighters in the same
The arrest of the last survivor of the old regime who is wanted at The Hague
for crimes against humanity crowned a momentous couple of days for a new
government that is still in the process of formation, and also posed
immediate tests of its authority -- both over powerful militias and with
In a sign of the strain that the prime minister-designate is under to
reconcile the interests of rival militia groups that control the ground in
Libya, officials said Abdurrahim El-Keib had asked for another couple of
days to complete a cabinet that he had previously hoped to announce on
A commander of former rebel forces nominally loyal to the National
Transitional Council (NTC), General Ahmed al-Hamdouni, told Reuters that his
men, acting on a tip, had found and surrounded Senussi at a house belonging
to his sister near the town of Birak, about 500 km (300 miles) south of
Tripoli and in the same region as Saif al-Islam was seized on Saturday.
NTC spokesman Abdul Hafez Ghoga later confirmed that Senussi, who is Saif
al-Islam's uncle by marriage, had been captured. It was not immediately
clear if the arrests were linked, though there has been speculation since
the fall of Tripoli three months ago that the pair were hiding together.
Fighters who intercepted Saif al-Islam on a desert road in the early hours
of Saturday said they believed one of his companions was also a nephew of
Senussi, whose wife is a sister of Muammar Gaddafi's second wife Safiya.
Like Muammar Gaddafi, who was captured and killed on the coast a month ago
on Sunday, Saif al-Islam and Senussi were indicted this year by the
International Criminal Court for alleged plans to kill protesters after the
Arab Spring revolt erupted in February.
But NTC officials have said they can convince the ICC to let them try both
men in Libya.
Ghoga said NTC members meeting on Sunday had confirmed that preference, as
did the current justice minister - although legal experts point out that
international law demands Tripoli make a strong case for the right to try
anyone who has already been indicted by the ICC.
MANY LIBYANS WANT HANGMAN'S NOOSE
Given the state of Libya's legal system after 42 years of dictatorship, as
well as the depth of feelings after this year's civil war, the ICC seems
unlikely to agree, many jurists think. Its chief prosecutor is expected in
Libya this week.
While the ICC, backed by a U.N. resolution, can demand Libya hand over the
prisoners, many Libyans are keen to see them tried for alleged crimes
committed over decades, well beyond the scope of the ICC charges relating to
this year only. And many also want them hanged, something barred at The
Among other old wounds, Senussi is suspected of a key role in the killing of
more than 1,200 inmates at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was the
arrest of a lawyer for victims' relatives that sparked Libya's Arab Spring
revolt in February. And many of the dead were members of Islamist groups
which are expected to be a major political force in a democratic Libya.
The case of Senussi, long the elder Gaddafi's right-hand man and enforcer,
may also revive interest in international incidents long shrouded in
mystery, from the days in the 1980s and 90s when Gaddafi's Libya waged
undercover war on the West.
Senussi's name has been linked with the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. He was
among six Libyans convicted in absentia in Paris of bringing down a French
UTA airliner a year later.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi spent Sunday at a secret location in the militia
stronghold of Zintan while in Tripoli the Libyan rebel leaders who overthrew
his father tried to resolve their differences and form a government that can
try the new captive.
With rival local militia commanders from across the country trying to parlay
their guns into cabinet seats, officials in the capital gave mixed signals
on how long Keib, may need.
Ghoga said the NTC had given Keib another two days, right up to a deadline
of Tuesday, to agree his cabinet -- a delay that indicated the extent of
horse-trading going on.
And though the Zintan mountain fighters who intercepted the 39-year-old heir
to the four-decade Gaddafi dynasty deep in the Sahara said they would hand
him over once some central authority was clear, few expect Saif al-Islam in
Members of the NTC, the self-appointed legislative panel of notables formed
after February's uprising, expect to vote on Keib's nominees, with keenest
attention among the men who control the militias focussed on the Defence
One official working for the NTC said that the group from Zintan, a town of
just 50,000 in the Western Mountains outside Tripoli that was a stronghold
of resistance to Gaddafi, might even secure that ministry thanks to holding
Other groups include rival Islamist and secularist militias in the capital,
those from Benghazi, Libya's second city and the original seat of revolt,
and the fighters from the third city of Misrata, who took credit for
capturing and killing the elder Gaddafi and haggled with the NTC over the
fate of his rotting corpse for several days in October.
"The final act of the Libyan drama," as a spokesman for the former rebels
put it, began in the blackness of the Sahara night, when a small unit of
fighters from the town of Zintan, acting on a tip-off, intercepted Saif
al-Islam and four armed companions driving in a pair of 4x4 vehicles on a
It ended, after a 300-mile flight north on a cargo plane, with the
London-educated younger Gaddafi, who had tried to pass himself off as
"Abdelsalam, a camel herder," being held in a safe house in Zintan and the
townsfolk vowing to keep him healthy until he can face a judge in the
His captors said he was "very scared" when they first recognised him,
despite the heavy beard and enveloping Tuareg robes and turban he wore. But
they reassured him and, by the time a Reuters correspondent spoke to him
aboard the plane, he had been chatting amiably to his guards.
"He looked tired. He had been lost in the desert for many days," said Abdul
al-Salaam al-Wahissi, a Zintan fighter involved in the operation. "I think
he lost his guide."
Sitting on the tarmac at Zintan, under siege from a mob who seemed ready to
inflict on him the indignities that met his father, revealed his fears, but
also some bravado and not a little humour. When others in the besieged
aircraft lit up cigarettes, he complained: "We're going to choke to death."
In video posted on YouTube, he was later seen chatting in a room with
others, apparently at ease in Zintan -- images that may surprise other
Libyans who bear deep grudges against him.
"There is no problem," he said at one point, after cursing the "infidel
Crusader pact" of NATO whose air strike a month ago had killed 26 of his men
and left him with a wounded hand.
How long Libya will hold on to him and Senussi, who officials said was being
held overnight in the desert, was unclear. Despite official insistence, some
analysts said Libya would face international pressure if it tried them
Western leaders, who backed February's uprising against Gaddafi but looked
on squeamishly as rebel fighters filmed themselves taking vengeance on the
fallen strongman a month ago, urged Keib to seek foreign help to ensure a
Keib, who taught engineering at U.S. universities before returning to Libya
to join the rebellion, drove on Saturday the two hours from Tripoli to
Zintan to pay homage to its fighters. He promised justice would be done -
(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Hisham El-Dani and Francois
Murphy in Tripoli and Oliver Holmes and Taha Zargoun in Zintan; Writing by
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Sun Nov 20 2011 - 18:14:12 EST