OBARI, Libya | Sun Nov 20, 2011 3:57pm EST
(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 his face.
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 Tripoli.
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 4×4 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-fueled largesse, which has granted asylum to Saif al-Islam’s brother Saadi.
“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 toward 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 Saif.”
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 honor.”
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 recognize 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 paratroopers.
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 analog instruments, with just occasional help from a new GPS device clamped awkwardly to the windshield.
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 the guards.
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 force.”
“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.