Tug-of-war looms over fate of Gaddafi's heir

Saharan fighters who captured Saif al-Islam are unwilling to surrender him to Tripoli

Three days after Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's capture in Libya's south Saharan wilderness, the failure of local militias in Zintan to hand him over to the national government is posing a troubling challenge to the new regime's authority.

The determination of Zintan's leaders to keep Saif in the small mountain town appeared to be holding firm yesterday, underlining the difficulties Libya's fledgling leaders face in imposing their will on an assortment of local militias and councils that have been de-facto authorities since the country's civil uprising began in February.

Yesterday, local officials were saying the trial of the one-time presumed heir to the Gaddafi regime could take place in Zintan, a poor town of about 35,000 people, two hours' drive south of the capital, Tripoli. "We have a good system here. We have good courts, we have good judges here, so why should we take him away?" Othman Eturki, head of the town council, told The Independent.

Zintan's single courthouse was torched during the revolution and is today daubed with graffiti, but Mr Eturki said it could be made ready for a trial.

"Zintan is part of Libya, so why must the people take him to Tripoli?" he asked. "Here we have only one local council. There are about 15 or 20 military councils in Tripoli."

The failure of Libya's interim National Transitional Council (NTC) to consolidate the various power groups that have sprung up, and to agree on a new government, has called into question its ability to lead Libya through the post-war stabilisation period. Today the Prime Minister-designate, Abdurrahim El-Keib, plans to announce a technocratic provisional cabinet, but there are still doubts about his ability to command the support of the entire nation.

"The delay is putting the country in jeopardy," said Mohammed bin Rasali, a council member from the western city of Misrata. "The politicians are letting everyone down. There is no leadership, there is no communication."

Three months since the fall of Tripoli, a new government has yet to be announced, provoking fears that politicians are stalling as they come under pressure from military commanders in towns that endured particularly brutal combat and want to see their battlefield contribution translated into political representation.

Zintan is a poor town a world away from life in Tripoli. Men here wear traditional robes or camouflage fatigues, and the main source of income is the flocks of sheep and herds of camels that graze the rocky fields on the edges of town. But it is noted for the ferocity of its fighters. The motto of the resistance hero of the Italian occupation, Omar Mukhtar, "We never give up – win or die", is daubed in English on one of the walls in the town centre. Zintani fighters fiercely resisted both the Italian occupation in the early 20th century and Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces earlier this year.

Since the war ended, Zintan's fighters have roamed Libya and retain a significant presence in Tripoli, where they police the international airport and checkpoints in the city centre. The capture of Saif al-Islam is a coup for them; observers suspect will be used for political leverage.

"He will stay here as long as there is no other safer place for him," said Osama Jweili, the head of the Zintan military committee yesterday.

"I myself prefer that he would be tried here in Zintan, but in the end it is for the government to decide," added Mr Jweili, who also pointed out that a government had yet to be announced. He assured reporters that Saif was being treated well. "All necessary things have been provided for him," he said.

On Sunday evening, Saif al-Islam was interviewed by Zintan's media council. A video showed him dressed in a taupe turban and traditional robes and appearing calm and in good health.

"We have a lot to talk about regarding my medical condition," he said – a hint, perhaps, of the deal he is likely to be attempting to reach with his captors. As a favoured son of the former leader, it is Saif that holds the key to where Libya's missing oil billions are. "We are sitting here with our families, with our brothers and there is no problem," he said.

The status of Abdullah al-Senussi, the intelligence chief who was also captured over the weekend, was not much clearer. A government spokesman said yesterday that he was being held at a secret location in the desert for the time being because of threats to his life.