Fight for Libya’s future enters new phase as Gaddafi’s son starts talks

Regime moves towards deal but turns down ceasefire offer

Kim Sengupta
Saturday 02 April 2011 00:00

The tempo of diplomatic and military action paving the way to a possible ceasefire in Libya's bloody civil war was gathering pace yesterday with reports that a son of Muammar Gaddafi was attempting to broker a deal.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who has appeared as a public and belligerent face of the regime during the weeks of violent strife, is said to be proposing an agreement which would limit the role of his father and include opposition figures in an interim government. Elections would be held in the near future and a "reconciliation process" put in place.

The details of the plan cannot be independently verified. However, according to diplomatic sources, senior officials in the West view Saif al-Islam, who supposedly wants to remain to play a "constructive role" in a post-war Libya, as a credible figure.

There is, however, deep hatred of the dictator and his family among the supporters of the revolution and the demands for retribution against the Gaddafis have ranged from trial on charges of human rights abuse, to forced exile.

Meanwhile, a key Libyan official said yesterday that Tripoli was attempting to hold talks with the US, Britain and France to find a mutual end to the crisis.

Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister, said Gaddafi's government was reaching out to those leading the international military campaign in an attempt to halt air strikes against regime targets which began on 19 March.

Yesterday, the opposition's provisional government in Benghazi announced it was ready to accept a cessation of hostilities in return for the regime ending its offensive against the rebels throughout the country. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the Transitional National Council, said: "We agree on a ceasefire on the condition our brothers in the Western cities have freedom of expression and also that the forces besieging the cities withdraw. At that point we shall see how all Libyan people want freedom."

Mr Jalil later added: "Our main demand is the departure of Gaddafi and his two sons from Libya. This is a demand we will not go back on." But officials of the provisional government said afterwards that there were differing stipulations for the ceasefire and a permanent peace deal, with the removal of the Gaddafis applying to the latter. Late last night, the Gaddafi regime spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, initially dismissed the terms offered by the rebels.

Mr Ibrahim also said six civilians had been killed and dozens wounded in a coalition attack on a village near the eastern city of Brega on Thursday, which were also reported by the BBC, making this the first credible report of civilian deaths resulting from Nato bombing. Mr Ibrahim descried the air strikes as a "crime against humanity".

Despite almost two weeks of Western air strikes, the revolutionary forces have abjectly failed to make headway against the loyalists and yesterday's declaration was seen as an admission a military victory is now beyond them. A ceasefire would allow the time to train and arm its fighters with international help. But opposition officials have also privately confided they are desperate to retake Brega and Ras Lanuf, two oil ports of huge financial and strategic interest, before there is a halt to the fighting.

This aim was reflected in the field with former armed forces personnel who had defected to the revolution taking over the running of the campaign from the Shabaab, volunteer fighters, who for the last few weeks had been in charge of its chaotic course.

General Bashir Abu-Gadr, who has gained a reputation as one of the few able commanders in the rebel ranks, left his hospital bed, where he was receiving treatment for battlefield injuries, to take charge of the operation to capture Brega. Also, for the first time since the conflict began, the two most senior officers in the revolutionary forces, General Abdel-Fattah Younis and General Khalifa Haftar, visited the front line.

Gen Abu-Gadr, who is believed to have liaised with Western diplomats, told The Independent at the rebels' most advanced position, 35 kilometres from Brega: "Ideally, I would like more heavy weapons before going ahead. But I have been told by the military council that it is necessary we drive the Gaddafi group out of Brega as soon as possible. After that, we shall go on to Ras Lanuf and then Bin Jawad to secure the approach routes.

"The military is in charge from today, we have told the Shabaab that from now on, they must follow instructions."

Regime forces, too, were attempting to secure military advantage ahead of any possible ceasefire with a renewed assault on Misrata, which has remained an opposition centre of resistance.

Even if a temporary ceasefire is arranged, a permanent peace deal involving Saif al-Islam is likely to prove highly problematic. Col Gaddafi's son has presented himself as a moderniser and someone who had attempted to breach divisions within Libyan society. Among his achievements, he and his supporters have stressed, was his role in persuading the fundamentalist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to turn away from armed struggle and subsequently freeing their members from prison.

But Selim Ibrahimi, a political scientist in Benghazi, said: "Saif al-Islam has appeared on television and boasted that the revolution will be crushed. They now know they cannot win so they are coming forward with these plans.

"But the revolutionary forces can use a ceasefire to get the right weapons from the international powers. Most of all, it can stop the violence which is taking so many lives."

The Gaddafi clan: Where are they now?

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

Once considered a sign of a more liberal Libyan future, Colonel Gaddafi's second son, pictured, appeared to have dashed these hopes when he vowed to crush rebel unrest during the early stages of the February 17 Revolution.

Mutassim Gaddafi

Believed to be the most powerful of Gaddafi's sons, 34-year-old Mutassim spent years in exile after allegedly plotting a coup against his father. Eventually allowed to return, he holds the powerful post of National Security Adviser.

Saadi Gaddafi

After stints as a professional footballer, 35-year-old Saadi is thought to have played a major role in curbing the uprisings as head of Libya's special forces.

Khamis Gaddafi

The regime has denied rumours that 27-year-old Khamis, head of the fierce Khamis Brigade of elite fighters, was killed on 19 March in a suicide mission by a Libyan pilot.

Abdullah Senussi

Colonel Gaddafi's brother-in-law and military intelligence chief is often described as his brutal "right-hand man". His whereabouts were unknown yesterday, leading to speculation that he had defected.

What does the defector want?

With his supposed whereabouts ranging from a wedding venue in Hampshire to a secure flat inside MI5's HQ, one of the few statements made with any certainty yesterday about Moussa Koussa was that he is the subject of one of the most detailed and searching debriefings carried out by MI6 in recent years.

But while the former Libyan foreign minister's knowledge on issues from the current state of mind of Colonel Gaddafi to the planning of the Lockerbie bombing will be priceless to his interlocutors, another unknown persists: what does the man who spent decades at the heart of a murderous regime get out of revealing its secrets? From David Cameron down, the Government was at pains to emphasise that when Mr Koussa's private jet touched down at Farnborough on Wednesday night, it did so on the clear understanding that he would receive no immunity from prosecution either in Britain or elsewhere.

However, the fact that this highly urbane member of Gaddafi's inner circle spent some 48 hours in Tunisia negotiating his defection before boarding a flight to the UK indicates that, at least, an understanding was reached between Mr Koussa and his British hosts.

The Independent understands basic undertakings were given that the 62-year-old's security would be assured in the face of a potential revenge attack by the Gaddafi regime. Mr Koussa is also thought to have arranged his financial affairs, boosted by Libya's oil wealth, before his departure, so funds could be accessed once he was in Europe.

But it is the more long-term future and whether Mr Koussa can expect to face criminal investigation that is the key question hanging over him.

Libya-watchers yesterday pointed out that any attempt to formally arrest or question the one-time close confidante of Gaddafi would have a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of other prominent figures in the regime to join the trickle of defectors and thus imperil efforts to drive the dictator from power.

Despite the fact Mr Koussa spent 17 years heading Libyan foreign intelligence, Whitehall sources have been careful to play down any claims, understood to be shared by US intelligence, that he co-ordinated the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

According to friends, Mr Koussa is under no illusions that he may well end up facing British justice. Noman Benotman, a senior analyst for the Quilliam Foundation, who helped co-ordinate Mr Koussa's exit, said: "He is aware of what is going to happen to him here. He knows that there is justice here in the UK. He's very positive to co-operate."

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