New details have emerged of the route used by Muammar Gaddafi’s family to escape into neighbouring Algeria, triggering a diplomatic row.
Officials in Libya’s National Transitional Council, as well as Gaddafi’s second wife, daughter and two sons, slipped out of the country along a road through central Libya outside National Transitional Council (NTC) control.
The escape was made in a convoy of six armoured Mercedes limousines, once part of an extensive government fleet, which departed from the town of Bani Walid, the stronghold of Libya’s biggest tribe, the Warfallah, where significant remnants of the regime are holding out.
NTC spokesperson Guma al-Gamaty said that the motorcade carried 32 Gaddafi family members, including his second wife, Safia, daughter Aisha and two sons, Hannibal and Mohammed, and reached the Algerian border last Saturday.
“They were kept waiting there for 10 to 12 hours while the Algerian government decided what to do. The Algerian president himself [Abdelaziz Bouteflika] authorised their entry,” Gamaty said. “We will definitely be seeking their return and we are co-operating with Interpol.”
On Monday the Algerian foreign ministry confirmed that the Gaddafi entourage had crossed the border that morning.
The crossing apparently took place at a remote border post at Tinkarine in the far southeast of Algeria, from where the family was taken to the town of Djanet. Aisha — a firebrand defender of the regime throughout the conflict — gave birth to a baby girl in Djanet’s hospital.
Algerian newspaper El Watan said Algerian troops were ordered to seal off the southern border immediately after the crossing.
The escape took place while the NTC’s forces were focused on taking Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and last coastal stronghold. The NTC leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has given loyalist forces in Sirte until Saturday to surrender or face a military onslaught.
But the fact that a conspicuous convoy of six armoured limousines could drive the length of the country unmolested indicates that there is a wide swath of the central Libyan hinterland outside the NTC’s grasp.
Gamaty said the NTC now thought that Gaddafi was probably in the Bani Walid area, where the local radio station is still making pro-Gaddafi broadcasts.
“He probably thought Bani Walid was a stronger place to be [than Sirte], as it belongs to the Warfallah, the largest tribe in Libya,” he said.
The manhunt for Gaddafi and his most powerful sons, Saif al-Islam, Mutassim and Khamis, moved southwards this week to the Bani Walid-Sebha desert road, assisted by Western intelligence and special forces. Their role is to pick up signals from intercepting equipment not available to the Libyans and identify their significance with NTC help.
The diplomatic row that has blown up in the wake of the family’s escape reflects the tensions caused by the western spread of the Arab spring, as the Algerian government tries to ensure it is not the next domino to fall.
It has so far refused to recognise the provisional NTC government in Tripoli. For its part, the NTC is seeking to ensure Algeria does not become a base from which Gaddafi loyalists can mount a counter-revolution.
The NTC’s interior minister, Ahmed Darrat, reacted angrily to Algeria’s decision to grant members of the Gaddafi family asylum. “From a political point of view this is an enemy act,” he said.
Gamaty said the NTC is particularly anxious to extradite Hannibal and Mohammed Gaddafi for alleged large-scale embezzlement from the shipping and telecommunications industries.
Another Algerian newspaper, Echorouk, reported this week that the Algerian government had promised to hand over Muammar Gaddafi should he try to follow his family into Algeria.
It quoted President Bouteflika as telling his Cabinet that the deposed leader would be handed over to the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity for the brutal suppression of the first Libyan anti-government protests in February and March.
However, Algeria’s ambassador to the UN, Mourad Benmehidi, told the BBC that in the desert regions there was a “holy rule of hospitality” by which his government had accepted the Gaddafi family on humanitarian grounds. —