* Zintan fighters hold Saif al-Islam
* Incoming PM says Saif will get a fair trial
* Arrest poses challenge for government
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
ZINTAN, Libya, Nov 20 (Reuters) - A month after Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed, his son Saif al-Islam was seized without a fight by Libyan militiamen who are now holding him in their mountain stronghold until Tripoli has a government to try him.
“The final of act of the Libyan drama”, as a spokesman for the former rebels put it, began in the blackness of the Sahara night, when a small unit of fighters from the town of Zintan, acting on a tip-off, intercepted Gaddafi and four armed companions driving in a pair of 4x4 vehicles on a desert track.
It ended, after a 300-mile flight north on a cargo plane, with the London-educated, 39-year-old heir-apparent to four decades of dictatorship held in a safe house in Zintan and the townsfolk vowing to see no harm to him until he can face a judge, and maybe in due course, an executioner in the capital.
His captors said he was “very scared” when first they recognised him, despite the heavy beard and enveloping Tuareg robes and turban he wore. But they reassured him and, by the time a Reuters correspondent spoke to him aboard the plane, he had been chatting amiably off and on to his guards.
Despite a tense couple of hours on the runway, when excited crowds rushed the plane that flew him from Obari in the desert to Zintan, an anti-Gaddafi bastion in the Western Mountains, the fighters holding him said they were determined he would not meet the fate of his father, who was killed after being seized.
Western leaders, who backed February’s uprising against Gaddafi but looked on squeamishly as rebel fighters filmed themselves venting vengeance on the fallen strongman a month ago on Sunday, urged the incoming government of Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib to seek foreign help to ensure a fair trial.
Keib, who spent a career teaching engineering at U.S. universities before returning to Libya to join the rebellion, drove up from Tripoli to Zintan to pay homage to its fighters. He promised justice would be done - though Saif al-Islam would not be handed over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which had indicted him for crimes against humanity.
Keib was expected to announce a cabinet line-up on Monday, a source in the interim administration said, meeting a deadline of Tuesday determined by a clock set ticking by Gaddafi’s death and completing the tricky task of balancing competing demands from the array of local militias now in real control of Libya.
The justice minister from the outgoing executive said the younger Gaddafi was likely to face Libya’s death penalty, though the precise charge sheet, expected to include ordering killings as well as looting the public purse, would be drawn up only by the state prosecutor after due investigation.
Word of the capture set off rejoicing in the streets of cities across the vast, oil-rich nation of just six million. Streets echoed with gunfire, from rifles but also the heavy anti-aircraft cannon that, mounted on civilian pick-up trucks, became the abiding image of an eight-month civil war that ended with the ousted leader’s death in his home town of Sirte.
“Finally we beat him, after all his pointing at us with his finger on television and threatening us,” Waleed Fkainy, a militiaman on patrol in Tripoli, said of Saif al-Islam, whose image as a potential reformer of his father’s eccentric one-man rule evaporated with his venomous response to the uprising.
“Thank God,” Fkainy said. “We lived under his threats and now we have the upper hand after this victory.”
Saif al-Islam’s fate will be a test for Keib’s incoming government as it sets out to stamp its authority over a country, currently dominated by armed militias with largely local loyalties which mounted the uprising.
Western leaders urged Libya to work with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has also issued an arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam, on charges of crimes against humanity during the crackdown on protesters.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both called on Libya to hand him over to the ICC and guarantee his safety.
But Libya’s interim justice minister Mohammed al-Alagy told Reuters Saif al-Islam would be tried inside Libya for serious crimes that carry the death penalty.
Keib said Libya would make sure Gaddafi’s son faced a fair trial and called his capture the “crowning” of the uprising.
“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,” Keib told a news conference in Zintan.
Saif al-Islam, who had vowed to die fighting, was taken without a struggle, possibly as he tried to flee to Niger, officials said.
“At the beginning he was very scared. He thought we would kill him,” Ahmed Ammar, one of his captors, told Reuters.
Saif al-Islam told the Reuters reporter on his plane a bandaged hand had been wounded in a NATO air strike a month ago. Asked if he was feeling alright, he said simply: “Yes.”
The Zintan fighters, who make up one of Libya’s most powerful militia factions that hold effective power in a country still without a government, said they planned to keep him until they could hand him over to authorities.
Keib heaped praise on the militia and said Gaddafi’s son remained in the hands of “the revolutionaries in Zintan”, acknowledging the authority the militia continued to hold over its territory.
Zintan could now use Saif al-Islam as a bargaining chip in the contest between rival groups for power in the new Libya. Fighters from Zintan made the decisive push on to Tripoli which ended Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, and they want to make sure their contribution is recognised.
Libyans believe Saif al-Islam knows the location of billions of dollars of public money amassed by the Gaddafi family. His captors said they found only a few thousand dollars and a cache of rifles in seized vehicles.
Ammar told Reuters that his unit of 15 men in three vehicles, acting on a tip-off about a possible high-profile fugitive, had intercepted two cars carrying Gaddafi and four others in the desert about 70 km (40 miles) from the small oil town of Obari at about 1:30 a.m. (2330 GMT on Friday).
“SERVANT OF PEACE”
After the fighters fired into the air and forced the cars to stop, they asked the identity of the passengers. Saif al-Islam replied said he was “Abdelsalam” - a name that means “servant of peace”, according to the fighters, who recognised him.
“The capture presents a challenge to the NTC. If they want to try Saif then what can they do to make Zintan hand him over?” said Henry Smith, an analyst with the Control Risks group, referring to the National Transitional Council which won international recognition as Libya’s new interim government.
Memories are still fresh of the days Muammar Gaddafi’s corpse spent rotting and on public view in the city of Misrata, another anti-Gaddafi stronghold, as its militia leaders trumpeted their capture of the fallen leader as part of a drive to extract power and patronage from the interim authority.
Smith said Saif al-Islam, once seen as a reformer who engineered his father’s rapprochement with the West, appeared to have been hiding in the desert since fleeing the tribal bastion of Bani Walid, near Tripoli, in October.
“I‘m really surprised that Saif al-Islam has not met the same fate as his father and his brother,” Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, where Saif al-Islam studied, told the BBC.
“The best thing that the new leadership can do is to hand Saif al-Islam to the International Criminal Court because I don’t believe it really has the resources and the means to try Saif al-Islam and give him a fair trial.”
Asked about the chances of that, he said: “Almost zero.” He said he expected Saif al-Islam to be sentenced to death and executed. “This is unfortunate for the new Libya,” he said.
There was no word of the other official wanted by the ICC, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who with France pushed for foreign military intervention in Libya, joined calls for a fair trial and offered Libya help in ensuring justice.
“The Libyan government has told us again today that he will receive a trial in line with international standards, and it is important that this happens,” Cameron said in a statement. (Additional reporting by Ismail Zeitouny and Mahmoud al-Farjani in Zintan, Ali Shuaib, Alastair Macdonald, Omar Younis, Hisham El-Dani in Tripoli, Francois Murphy in Benghazi, Erika Solomon in Beirut, Shaimaa Fayyed in Cairo, Christian Lowe in Algiers, Peter Apps, Peter Millership, Andrew Heavens and Michael Holden in London, Nicholas Vinocur in Paris and Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Ralph Gowling)