PARIS (Reuters) - A senior Islamist rebel in charge of controlling Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi denied links to al Qaeda and said he had been tortured by U.S. intelligence officers in 2004, French daily Le Monde reported on Saturday.
Western officials have expressed concern that some part of the fighting groups that helped to overthrow Gaddafi were Islamist militants or affiliated to al Qaeda, and might seek to install hardline religious rule in his wake.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who helped lead an Islamist group that has fought in close cooperation with the main rebel National Transitional Council, said his group had no intention of seizing power and would let the Libyan people decide on a form of rule in the post-Gaddafi era.
In an interview with Le Monde daily, he also claimed that he was tortured by CIA operatives in Bangkok who suspected he was a member of al Qaeda.
Belhadj acknowledged having fought alongside al Qaeda jihadists in Afghanistan but said that his Libyan group never espoused the same ideology of al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden.
“The Islamic combat group was never a part of al Qaeda, neither from an ideological point of view, nor from an operational point of view,” Belhadj, whose age is reported as 45, told Le Monde.
“It happened that we were in the same place and at the same time as al Qaeda: that was in Afghanistan, where we sometimes fought side by side, when the goal was to liberate the country. But we were never under its authority,” he said.
Belhadj added that he had been arrested in March, 2004, in Malaysia, and later transferred to Bangkok where he claimed to have been interrogated and tortured for several days by CIA agents in a secret prison.
Human Rights Watch says it has uncovered hundreds of letters in the abandoned offices of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief indicating that U.S. and British spy agencies helped the fallen strongman persecute Libyan dissidents.
Belhadj, whom the newspaper described as charismatic and soft-spoken, said the rebel uprising in Libya was broad-based and drew its authority from the Libyan people.
“The revolution ... is the work of no particular political current, no ideology. It is the revolution of the Libyan people as a whole,” he said.
“I assure that the fighters have no particular agenda. Do not doubt us. There is nothing to fear, we are not al Qaeda, I have never been in it, I can say that with complete tranquility and, what’s more, not from a prison cell.”