NOUAKCHOTT/TRIPOLI Mauritania has agreed that Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, arrested in Nouakchott last week, can be extradited to Libya, Libya's deputy prime minister said on Tuesday.
The decision, if implemented, sets Libya on a collision course with France and the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which also want Senussi, Gaddafi's right-hand man before the Libyan dictator's overthrow and death in a revolt last year.
"I have met the president of Mauritania and he agreed to the extradition of Senussi to Libya," Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour wrote on Twitter on Tuesday in a comment confirmed as official by a Libyan government representative.
"The Libyan delegation visited Senussi in prison and confirmed his identity. The criminal sits in a Mauritanian prison and soon will be in a Libyan prison," Shagour wrote in a second tweet in Arabic.
A Mauritanian security source said a deal was close but acknowledged pressure from Paris.
"We agreed to study their request favorably. It's almost a done deal but one should be careful. The French are applying lots of pressure," the source said on condition of anonymity.
"They say their claim takes priority because their arrest warrant went in first and because they helped with the arrest."
There was no immediate reaction from France or the ICC.
In Nouakchott, a source close to the presidency said a plane was due to arrive overnight from Libya and depart just before midday on Wednesday. It was unclear whether Senussi would be put on that plane or whether it was simply to take the Libyan delegation home. There was no official comment from Libya.
Senussi, whose whereabouts had been unclear for months, was arrested at Mauritania's Nouakchott airport late on Friday when he stepped off a flight from Morocco.
France and the International Criminal Court also want Senussi. The ICC has indicted him for crimes against humanity, while he is also alleged to have had a role in the 1989 bombing of an airliner in which 54 French nationals died.
"We want Senussi to be extradited to France. We feel we owe it to the victims' families and to justice," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said of a step that would allow France to confirm the life sentence already handed down to Senussi in absentia by a French court.
Senussi's name has been linked to the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland of a Pan Am jet that killed 270 people.
"The Americans put in a request to Mauritanian authorities yesterday (Monday) morning to be able to meet Senussi while he is still in Mauritania," said one diplomatic source. A second diplomat also confirmed the request had been made.
No comment was immediately available either from the Mauritanian or U.S. governments.
Human rights groups doubt Senussi, 62, will have a fair trial in Libya and have called for his transfer to the ICC.
Amnesty International described the Libyan judicial system as "paralyzed", noting it had not successfully investigated the deaths of prisoners in rebel detention or high-profile cases like the death of former military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis.
"The Libyan judiciary has done nothing. It has held no one accountable and has not investigated a single case yet," Amnesty's Donatella Rovera told Reuters.
Deputy Justice Minister Khalifa Faraj Ashour told Reuters in Tripoli the former intelligence chief would be tried fairly in his home country, where he has been feared and hated by many.
"Security is good, the courts are working fine in almost all of the country," he said. "Even if there is a security breach once in a while, we can deal with it."
Ashour said it was too early to discuss what charges Senussi could face in Libya. Interpol has issued a Red Notice for him at Libya's request for fraud offences including embezzling public funds and misuse of power for personal benefit.
"In general, we can say one of the crimes is financial corruption. He knows a lot about hidden money," Ashour said.
Senussi is also suspected of a key role in the killing of more than 1,200 inmates at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was the arrest of a lawyer for victims' relatives that sparked Libya's Arab Spring revolt in February last year.
"Senussi being handed over to Libya and tried here would be a great support for the Libyan revolution and the country's courts," Ashour said. "You have to realize that he committed many other crimes in Libya before the revolution."
Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting said the Senussi case "could serve as a precedent for other countries that have Gaddafi family members or close Gaddafi associates, like Tunisia, Niger and Egypt".
According to Mauritanian security sources, Senussi is being held in the main police training school in Nouakchott.
The sources said the facility - which is surrounded by a high wall blocking all view from outside - was the only one which could keep Senussi in sufficient security while affording him a degree of comfort.
(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Writing by Mark John and Giles Elgood; Editing by Andrew Roche)