The man most Libyans now call ‘the tyrant’ or ‘the fugitive’ may be sheltered by Tuareg tribesmen near the town of Ghadamis
Muammar Gaddafi could be hiding near a picturesque town on Libya’s borders with Algeria and Tunisia, sheltered by Tuareg tribesmen who are in his pay, according to officials of the country’s western-backed rebel leadership.
They said the man most Libyans now call “the tyrant” or “the fugitive” may have been near Ghadamis, a Unesco world heritage site famous for its oasis, walled old town and largely Berber population.
Evidence of his presence apparently emerged after an attack at the Algerian border last weekend killed at least nine rebels, though there is suspicion this may have been a diversion to let Gaddafi flee.
Gaddafi was last seen in Tripoli a few days after the Nato-backed uprising on 20 August. Witnesses spotted him at an army base with his daughter Aisha, who arrived in Algeria the following day with her brothers Hannibal and Mohammed, their mother, Safia, and other relatives. Saadi, another son, fled to Niger with other senior regime figures.
Hisham Buhagiar, coordinator of the hunt for Gaddafi, revealed the deposed leader had been in the southern town of Samnu a week ago, before moving to Ghadamis, 350 miles south-west of Tripoli.
“There has been a fight between Tuareg tribesmen who are loyal to Gaddafi and Arabs living there [in the south],” Buhagiar told Reuters. “We are negotiating. The Gaddafi search is taking a different course.”
Libyan military sources say that Tuaregs, nomads who live in the Sahara in Libya, Algeria and Mali, support Gaddafi because he is paying them generously.
Colonel Ahmed Bani, military spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council, told reporters that he could not be certain of Gaddafi’s whereabouts. But he confirmed that Gaddafi’s son Mutasim, his national security adviser, was still in the coastal city of Sirte, where heavy fighting is continuing. The better-known Saif al-Islam is in Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, where there is a stalemate, and where a senior rebel commander was killed on Wednesday. A phone call between the two was intercepted by the NTC at the weekend.
“Gaddafi’s location is a riddle,” Bani said. “But this does not worry us. What we worry about is the complete liberation of Libya. After that we will do our best to hunt down this bloody man. He will be found wherever he is.”
But there is scepticism about reports about Gaddafi. “It’s propaganda,” said one Tripoli analyst. “He spent 42 years fooling people and he’s doing the same now.”
The hunt for Gaddafi is also causing tensions with Libya’s neighbours, though Algeria this week warned Aisha Gaddafi to stop making statements to a Damascus-based TV channel, al-Rai which has also broadcast defiant words from her father.
Rebel activists plan to demonstrate in Tripoli on Thursday to protest against the “hostile attitudes” of Algeria and Niger, as well as Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime seems bent on crushing protests that have already killed 2,700 people.
Tunisia said last week it had detained Gaddafi’s last prime minister after he entered the country illegally and sentenced him to six months in prison. But it emerged on Tuesday that Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi has been freed – despite demands that he be handed over to the authorities in Tripoli.
It was reported from Belarus, meanwhile, that a military plane from Libya landed in Minsk on Monday with 15 people on board. It was immediately moved into a hangar. The Belorusski Partizan said it was met by diplomats and intelligence officials, fuelling rumours that Gaddafi and his family were on the aircraft.