SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

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Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

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Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

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Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

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Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

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The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

Ex-Libya PM jailed for illegal entry into Tunisia

The former prime minister of ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government has been jailed for six months in Tunisia for entering the country illegally.

Al Baghdadi Ali al Mahmoudi was arrested after security forces found him without a visa in his passport near Tamaghza at the border with Algeria on Wednesday.

He was sentenced to half a year behind bars when he faced the state prosecutor on Thursday.

Earlier this month, another member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, Khouildi Hamidi, was briefly detained at Tunis airport for illegal entry.

The latest arrest and sentencing comes days after the interim Libyan government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), captured key sites in one of Gaddafi’s last strongholds of Sabha.

It has now been claimed that forces loyal to the NTC uncovered a stash of chemical weapons when taking hold of the town.

But there may have been a bigger prize concealed there.

There are fresh – as yet, unconfirmed – reports of sightings of Col Gaddafi himself fleeing the town as it fell.

Both the towns of Sabha and Jufra in the southern desert are now fully in the hands of the NTC, according to its military spokesman.

In the former regime strongholds in the north of the country, it is a different story.

Pro-Gaddafi fighters in Bani Walid and Sirte continue to hold out against NTC assaults and Nato air strikes.

The resolve and heavy defences of the pro-Gaddafi forces are giving rise to speculation that there must still be something or someone valuable worth protecting and fighting for.

Outside the towns, the frustration is mounting amongst the rebels. So far they have made little progress beyond the outskirts.

Every advance has been repelled by heavy artillery and mortars. As they move closer to the centres, snipers are picking off fighters and bringing an ever-increasing number of casualties.

The inability to make any inroads is causing frustration and boredom among the NTC forces stationed outside the towns.

Tensions are also reaching boiling point between local fighters and outside reinforcements, causing rifts and accusations of treachery in the ranks.

That friction has been mirrored in the NTC’s efforts to agree on a new government.

An announcement of its members was expected earlier this week but has repeatedly been postponed. It is hoped the return of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil from the United States will be the catalyst for agreement.

His efforts to bring its members and the country together have reportedly received a financial boost, with a surprise find in the Central Bank of Libya.

Officials from the Libyan stabilisation team say they have found $23bn worth of assets. The new funds will help set the country on track for redevelopment.

It is still waiting for international sanctions to be lifted on much of the Libyan assets frozen under the Gaddafi regime.

Libya: Infighting Stalls Interim Govt Talks

After the jubilation and cheers that surrounded David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Libya last week, it is back to business for the nation’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

The two European leaders acknowledged there would be big challenges to come – but the NTC must have hoped those challenges would not come quite so soon.

The Libyan leaders had planned to follow up the high-profile international visitswith a high-profile announcement of their own – a new government committee or cabinet that would bring unity to a country divided along tribal and geographical lines.

Despite negotiations over the weekend in Benghazi, council members have been unable to agree on the set-up of the new body or on its members.

The indication from an NTC spokesman so far is that it will be formed of 24 members, rather than the 36 they had originally mooted.  NTC interim head Mahmoud Jibril is favourite to continue as prime minister, but is likely to relinquish his second post of foreign minister.  We are told the cabinet will “expire as soon as they have declared full liberation of Libyan lands”, paving the way for democratic elections.  The spokesman said this could be “in two weeks, two months or two years, depending on how long it takes to liberate the lands”.

But it is precisely this ‘liberation’ that is the main sticking point in the negotiations.  Some members of the NTC are apparently reluctant even to consider talking about forming a new cabinet while significant areas of the country remain out of their control.

Battles are still raging in and around the Gaddafi strongholds of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha.

NTC forces are struggling to make any inroads into the towns, which are being held by diehard supporters of the former dictator.

Furthermore, the friction between the leaders of the NTC is mirrored by infighting among their forces on the ground.

They are suffering increasing numbers of casualties, and despite reinforcements and a number of assaults on the pro-Gaddafi towns, they have been repeatedly repelled.  Some fighters complain they are confused; that they are receiving conflicting orders, suggesting the NTC is struggling to establish central co-ordinated command over the different regions.

Despite extra weapons and men being sent to the frontlines from further afield, many of the fighters are also concerned they are outgunned and outnumbered by an enemy that is dug-in, had time to prepare and has clearly hoarded an arsenal of heavy weapons.

The NTC is going to have to find a way of unifying its own members and fighters if it is to set an example for the rest of the country to pull together and work towards a more stable future.

Fighter Pilots Return To Libya As Heroes

Two Libyan fighter pilots who defected to Malta instead of bombing their own citizens have returned to Tripoli and a hero’s welcome.

The two men have spent the last six months in exile in Malta after refusing to fire on protesters in Benghazi last February.  As they stepped off a small Maltese air force plane onto the tarmac in Tripoli, their priority was the families they left behind to face the wrath of the Gaddafi regime.

Their names were given as Abdullah al Salheen and Ali al Rabti.  To cheers and hugs from friends and supporters, they were led away to be reunited with their loved ones.  Six months ago, the two men were scrambled in their French-built F1 Mirage planes as the demonstrations took hold in the early days of the uprising in the country’s east.

But just minutes before opening fire, they said they changed their minds and decided to defect abroad.  The move, which would have been a brave one in a democratic country, could have been a fatal one under Col Gaddafi’s regime.  Other pilots who defected around the same time were not so fortunate.

Two who fled to Algeria were sent back to Libya where the regime reportedly made an example of them – with a public execution.  The returning heroes from the Okba Bin Nafe airbase near Tripoli chose their host country wisely.  After flying just 200ft above the Mediterranean Sea to avoid radar detection, they came in to land at the main airport in Malta.  When they made contact with the radio tower both pilots claimed they had run out of fuel.  When they were taken into custody and questioned they revealed their true motives and requested political asylum – while staying in an air force officers’ mess.

Their bravery three days after the start of the revolution inspired thousands of fellow Libyans to raise their voices in revolt against the dictatorial regime.  Colonel Gaddafi’s most high-profile son, Saif al Islam, threatened “rivers of blood” if opposition to his father was not squashed.  Six months on, the fighter pilots have returned to what is being called a “free” Tripoli.

But Col Gaddafi’s supporters seem determined to make good on his son’s promise in the areas of Libya, such as their home town of Sirte, still under their control.

Libya: More Bloodshed In Battle For Bani Walid

As convoys of anti-Gaddafi troops move forward towards Bani Walid, more bloodshed is predicted in the effort to take one of Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds.

At regular intervals, ambulances screech by in the opposite direction towards the clinic in the nearest village fifty kilometres away.

The reinforcements from the north started the day at the mosque, praying for victory in their hometown, before heading to the front line.

The National Transitional Council’s negotiator for the area, Abdullah Kenshil told us they have about 4,000 rebel fighters surrounding the collection of hamlets in the valley.

It is thought there are only around 50 die-hard Gaddafi supporters holed up in the area, but they have had time to prepare for what may well be their last stand.

When the fighters launched their assault on Friday evening, they faced difficult terrain and a barrage of heavy weaponry including rockets and artillery.

They claim their enemy is using residents’ houses as bases and firing points, making it almost impossible to fire back without risking the lives of civilians.

Abdullah Kenshil is optimistic they can take the town but says he is determined they will do it legally and while respecting human rights.

He has issued a directive to all troops, demanding: “You will not enter houses; you will not hurt the people. You will not fire in the air; prisoners will be captured and judged through the courts…”

But there is already tension between the different communities and leaders involved in the battle.

:: Pictures – Anti-Gaddafi Forces Close In On Bani Walid

The Bani Walid commanders refused to wait for the deadline imposed by Benghazi’s National Transitional Council but say the early attack was justified.

“They are inside the city, they are fighting with snipers. They forced this on us and it was in self-defence,” said Abdullah Kenshil.

And the people of Bani Walid are determined to claim this victory as theirs alone -reluctant to allow so-called ‘foreign’ fighters onto their land.

They are proud and historically very independent and they are keen to capture the “Big Fish” Abdullah Kenshil says is personally pulling the strings behind the fierce resistance in the town.

He is convinced Colonel Gaddafi himself is leading his men, alongside his former spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and at least two of his sons.

The rebel fighters have now reached the outskirts of Bani Walid. Their target, the Souk, or market place is two kilometres away.

But it may be some time before they claim the town and any Gaddafi prize within it.

And it will surely bring more of the bloodshed that they were so desperate to avoid.