Dusty and dishevelled, Gaddafi's feared son was found posing as camel-keeper

The Saif al-Islam captured at the weekend was a world away from the urbane operator who once terrified Libya

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The Independent Online

The small town of Zintan, high in Libya's Nafusa mountain range, shows little evidence of Libya's billions of dollars of oil wealth. Until Saturday this dusty settlement of cement brick houses, scattered across rubble-strewn hills, had few trophies to boast of.

Now it enjoys the dubious honour of hosting the nation's most famous son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The one-time presumed heir to the Gaddafi regime, international playboy and confidant of western leaders is now a prisoner in a private house, where he awaits justice at the hands of the men his father had been fighting for most of the past year.

The forefinger with which he once angered Libyans by wagging at them in threatening TV broadcasts is gone, severed, he says, in a Nato bombing. With it have gone the stylish western clothes and wire-framed glasses. Instead, he sports a bristly beard and traditional robes. And he faces the prospect of the most high-profile trial in the new Libya.

As a picture began to emerge yesterday of the capture of the feared dictator's son, the people he had once threatened to hunt out "house by house" like rats could barely contain their glee.

"It's the best day ever, I can't describe how I feel. I'm really happy, this really is the end," said Khalid Shaibi, one of a group of men enjoying cups of coffee at a café in Zintan yesterday. "Everyone was worried about Saif because if anything was going to happen against the Libyan people it would be organised by him. Nobody can hurt us now."

The 15-man strong border patrol that captured the fugitive Saif al-Islam had been there for weeks, roaming the vast swathes of Saharan desert that make up Libya's wild southern hinterland. "We received a tip-off about a VIP," said Al Hmaly Al Hotmaly, one of the group that launched the ambush on the lonely road to the border with neighbouring Niger.

Confronted, Saif initially attempted to hide his identity. "He tried to cheat us," recounted Ahmed Ammar, who said Saif had given his name as Abdul Salam and claimed to be a camel keeper.

Once he was identified as Gaddafi's most prominent son, a plane was summoned to take the captives back to Zintan. Abdullah el Mahd was the pilot who flew Saif al-Islam on the 90-minute journey from Obari to Zintan.

"He felt like someone who'd been defeated at war," said el Mahdi. "He was very weak, very weak inside. He knows that everything is finished."

When the plane landed at Zintan, it was soon surrounded by an angry mob.

"There was nothing I could do," explained el Mahdi. "He was afraid when he saw the people but I promised him he would be all right." It was to take hours before Saif could be taken from the plane and driven in safety to the place where he is now held under house arrest.

On Saturday evening, Libya's new leaders gathered in the crisp air of the Nafusa mountains to confirm the news to an audience of hundreds of camouflage-clad militiamen and a handful of foreign reporters.

"We assure Libyans and the world that Saif al-Islam will receive a fair trial ... under fair legal processes which our own people had been deprived of for the last 40 years," Libya's interim Prime Minister, Abdulrahman Al-Keib, said.

Officials in Zintan were saying yesterday that Saif al-Islam could be tried in the town. "We have courts and we have judges that are capable of trying him legally and fairly," said Abdullah Mohammed, a military commander in the city.

His words were echoed by Osama Jweili, head of Zintan Military Council, who said that Zintan was safe and secure enough to host the trial. Asked where Saif's trial should take place he said: "Definitely in Libya because that's what all the Libyans want."

"He's a bit depressed, not thinking straight, a bit confused because he's been hunted for so long," he said, describing Saif's present condition, adding that Zintani officials had told Saif that he would be assured a fair trial there.

"We'll provide the rights that your regime did not provide for us," they told him.

At the civilian council, officials also said Zintan could host a trial. "We can try him, it will not take too long, we don't need any new laws," Dr Omran Turki, an engineer who heads the council, said. "They are Zintanis who captured him so they will have to have him here."

He said that Saif had been exhausted. "He hasn't slept for three or four days. We didn't ask him any questions because he was so tired. We just sat him down and gave him some couscous and tea."

In Zintan's hospital, the Ukrainian doctor who treated Saif al-Islam said that his fingers were badly wounded and required urgent care but that the former fugitive was otherwise in good health.

"He was very nice. He was not depressed. He's not scared. He needs an operation," said Andrej Morakovsky, a Ukrainian doctor who said he had been working in Zintan for over eight years.

Dr Morakovsky said that Saif was being held in a private house inside the city.

"I think he should be kept here at least until a new government is formed and they know what they're doing," said Ahmed al Obeidy, one of a number of Zintani fighters who said that they wanted him tried there.

A convoy of cars piled into the concrete compound of Zintan's military council on Sunday afternoon as fighters from the Western city of Misrata arrived to congratulate the Zintanis.

"It's over," said Faisal Swehli, a businessman from Tripoli who was celebrating the news in Zintan. "The battle now is between ourselves, to unite ourselves. We are no longer cattle and they are the wolves. We are no longer afraid."