Embarrassment for rebels as 'captured' Saif Qaddafi appears with his supporters

Two Qaddafi sons said to be in custody are free, but the game is still over.
Pictures of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, celebrating in Tripoli yesterday have hurt the rebels' credibility. AP Photo
Pictures of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, celebrating in Tripoli yesterday have hurt the rebels' credibility. AP Photo

BENGHAZI // The emergence of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, surrounded by cheering supporters yesterday, may hurt the credibility of rebels who said they had captured him, but the episode seems unlikely to inflict permanent harm.

Libya's rebel council, led by the former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said on Sunday that Saif and another Qaddafi son, Mohammad, had been detained after rebel fighters streamed into Tripoli largely unopposed.

Now neither Saif, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with his father Muammar, nor Mohammad are in rebel custody.

The confusion is likely to compound a nagging sense of unease among Libya's foreign backers, who include the United States, Britain and France, about the rebels' prospects for running the country.

It is not clear whether Saif was captured and then escaped, or if he was never captured in the first place. A spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) said Saif had never been captured, but the NTC had been tricked into believing he had been.

"There was misinformation intentionally put out by fifth column people to discredit the NTC and they were successful," the NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.

The report of Saif's capture was widely believed and welcomed by many Libyans as well as by Libya's foreign backers and the ICC. Mr Abdulmolah said the report had clearly not been investigated properly.

"They should not have come out with an announcement until they had seen him in handcuffs in front of them," he said. "They came out with it based on someone's misinformation and took it at face value."

The movement against Muammar Qaddafi's rule sprang from protests beginning in Benghazi in February which met a brutal response from government security forces.

A disparate coalition of untrained civilian fighters and former military men, young and old, religious and secular, the movement has not been able to shake off an appearance of disorganisation, poor communication and confused lines of responsibility and command that at times seems to border on the chaotic.

The rebels' military commander was killed in July in unexplained circumstances that raised fears of a violent rivalry among opposition factions.

While Benghazi has been peaceful for months, pickups mounted with machine guns jostle with civilian cars on the streets at night, after people break their Ramadan fasts.

News of the rebels' lightning advance on Tripoli at the weekend and Saif's capture brought thousands of people out waving the red, green and black opposition flag. For hours, gunmen fired into the night sky in celebration.

While Saif was apparently never captured, his brother Mohammad was, but got away, rebel officials said. The head of military affairs for the NTC, Omar Hariri, said the rebels who captured Mohammad had let him stay with his own guards.

"They left his own bodyguards with him and he used this privilege and escaped," said Mr Hariri, who was one of the officers along with Col Qaddafi who overthrew King Idris in 1969.

A Western diplomat said Saif's appearance on Monday night outside his father's compound did not mean he was free to roam the city organising, nor did it change the reality for the Qaddafis that "the game is over".

"He's definitely not driving around Tripoli the way the opposition are," the second diplomat said.

"The story is that these are the final days of the Qaddafi regime. The NTC is still the authoritative body, this doesn't change anything about that."

Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM

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