Muammar Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Saif al-Islam has been detained in the southern desert, Libya’s interim justice minister and other officials said on Saturday.
Fighters from the western mountain city of Zintan claimed his capture as gunfire and car horns marked jubilation across the country at the seizure of the British-educated 39-year-old who a year ago seemed set for a dynastic succession to rule.
He and three armed companions were taken without a fight overnight, officials said, and al-Islam was not injured — unlike his father, who was killed a month ago after being captured by fighters in his home town of Sirte.
“We have arrested Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in [the] Obari area,” Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagy told Reuters, adding that the younger Gaddafi, wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague (ICC), was not injured.
The Zintan fighters, one of the powerful militia factions holding ultimate power in a country still without a government, said they planned to hold on to him in Zintan, until there was an administration to hand him over to.
Prime minister-designate Abdurrahim El-Keib is scheduled to form a government by Tuesday and the fate of al-Islam, whom Libyans want to try at home before possibly handing him over to the ICC, will be an early test of its authority.
Gaddafi’s beating, abuse and ultimate death in the custody of former rebel fighters was an embarrassment to the previous transitional government. Officials in Tripoli said they were determined to handle his son’s case with more order.
A fighter from the anti-Gaddafi force, the Khaled bin al-Waleed Brigade, which said it seized him in the wilderness near the oil town of Obari told Free Libya television: “We got a tip he had been staying there for the last month.
“They couldn’t get away because we had a good plan,” Wisam Dughaly added, saying al-Islam had been using 4×4 vehicle: “He was not hurt and will be taken safely for trial so Libyans will be able to prosecute him and get back their money.
“We will take him to Zintan for safekeeping to keep him alive until a government is formed and then we will hand him over as soon as possible,” Dughaly said.
He added that al-Islam, once seen as a reformer who engineered his father’s rapprochement with the West but who is now wanted at The Hague for war crimes against the rebels, appeared to have been hiding out in the desert since fleeing the tribal bastion of Bani Walid, near Tripoli, in October.
Justice minister Alagy said he was in touch with the ICC over how to deal with Gaddafi, either at home or The Hague.
He told Al Jazeera, “We Libyans do not oppose the presence of international monitors to monitor the trial procedures that will take place for the symbols of the former regime.”
Other Libyan officials have said a trial in Libya should first address killings, repression and wholesale theft of public funds over the four decades of the elder Gaddafi’s personal rule. After that, the ICC might try him for alleged orders to kill unarmed demonstrators after February’s revolt.
There was no word of the other official wanted by the ICC, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
Bashir Thaelba, a Zintan commander told reporters in Tripoli, “The rebels of Zintan announce that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has been arrested along with three of his aides today [Saturday],” Thaelba said in remarks carried on Libyan television. “We hope at this historical moment that the future of Libya will be bright.”
Al-Islam long drew Western favour by touting himself as a liberalising reformer but then staunchly backed his father in his brutal crackdown on rebels in the regime’s final days.
He went underground as Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August and his whereabouts remained unknown even after Gaddafi was captured and killed by revolutionary forces on October 20.
But on Saturday, a Libyan militia commander said al-Islam had been captured with two aides trying to smuggle him out to neighbouring Niger. Bashir al-Tlayeb told reporters in Tripoli that Gaddafi’s son had been taken to the Libyan town of Zintan.
The ICC has charged al-Islam and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi with crimes against humanity for the brutal crackdown on dissent as the uprising against the regime began in mid-February and escalated into a civil war. Gaddafi had also been charged.
The ICC has said it was in indirect negotiations with al-Islam about his possible surrender for trial.
Al-Islam has always stood apart from his siblings, who were better known for their antics and eccentricities than their achievements.
Educated in Britain and fluent in English, al-Islam found favour among prominent Western intellectuals, exhibited his paintings at galleries around the world and won plaudits from world leaders and rights campaigners with talk of democracy and development.
He was long touted as Gaddafi’s heir apparent and the man who would modernise and reform the country but that position was always far from certain and he faced fierce resistance from hard-liners in the regime as well as his younger brother, Muatassim, who served as national security adviser.
The ICC said it was seeking confirmation of reports from Tripoli of his arrest.
“The first thing is to confirm his capture,” court spokesperson Fadi El-Abdallah said.
“What we are going to do is wait for official confirmation from the authorities that a suspect wanted by the ICC has been arrested.”
The ICC’s prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo predicted on November 9 that Saif’s arrest was just a matter of time, adding, “Saif will face justice, that’s his destiny.”
A week earlier, the prosecutor told the UN Security Council that the ICC had “received questions from individuals linked to Saif al-Islam about the legal conditions attaching to his potential surrender.”
ICC investigators have visited Libya to collect more evidence in the case against al-Islam and also into allegations of mass rapes by Gaddafi forces during the crackdown against protesters before the revolt turned into full-blown civil war. — Reuters, Sapa, AFP