TRIPOLI/ZINTAN (Reuters) - Saif al-Islam Gaddafi flitted between fear of being lynched and bravado at the prospect of meeting the same fate as his father when his Libyan captors flew him to their mountain stronghold.
And as a mob outside bayed for his blood, he even found time to worry about the dangers of passive smoking.
The man who for years was seen as the leading pro-Western reformer within the Gaddafi camp said little to Reuters journalists who travelled in the Libyan air force transport plane that took him from the desert where he was captured to the town of Zintan, south of Tripoli, on Saturday.
An audio recording, however, picked up some of the conversations on the tarmac in Zintan between him, his captors and the men he was traveling with when he was caught.
Having spent most of the flight staring out of the window with his back to the other passengers, Saif al-Islam, dressed in flowing Tuareg robes and traditional desert turban, spoke more freely when a crowd surrounded the plane after landing.
“I’m staying here. They’ll empty their guns into me the second I go out there,” he said as hundreds of men thronged round the aircraft, fired in the air in celebration and climbed on the fuselage, even trying to prise the prise a door open.
His reluctance to disembark was hardly surprising a month after his father was captured by revolutionary fighters, beaten abused and killed.
But it was in stark contrast to his aggressive posture during Libya’s civil war, when he called the fighters who eventually toppled his father “rats” and promised to crush their rebellion.
“I knew it. I knew that there would be a big crowd,” he said, peeking out through curtains at the jubilant Zintanis before recoiling in apparent terror. At another moment, his guards tried to assure him word of his capture had not leaked.
“If I knew this was what would happen, I should have rammed my head through the window,” the 39-year-old added in the darkness of the bare metal fuselage, where the portholes were covered for his protection. He appeared to be referring back to the moment when he was caught in the early hours, in a car.
Between such bouts of fear, while the crowd outside chanted “God is greatest”, the younger Gaddafi seemed to regain his mettle. Shortly after saying he expected to be shot on sight, he said he was not afraid of being killed.
“I have no problem with that,” he said.
Saif al-Islam, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity but now the object of Libyans’ desire for a trial on home soil, later seemed to express concern for the safety of his four companions, saying he would rather wait on the tarmac for things to calm down before leaving.
“I’d rather we stayed an hour or two and left safely so that none of the people with me get hurt,” he said. His plane eventually waited on the runway for three hours before he was taken to a safe house in Zintan, exposed briefly to a crowd of people trying to slap him as he left the aircraft.
Although he clearly seemed to fear for his life and those of his men, Saif al-Islam also seemed worried about the dangers of passive smoking, and at one point seemed torn between the need to keep the mob out and to get fresh air into the plane.
When men in the plane lit up cigarettes, Saif al-Islam told them they were putting his life at risk: “The plane’s sealed and we’ll suffocate,” he said. “We’re going to choke to death.”
When one of the others suggested opening the door for ventilation, however, he appeared to think the armed crowd banging on the walls posed a more immediate threat to his health: “I don’t need fresh air, man.”
Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Jon Boyle