NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Libya stepped up pressure on Mauritania to hand over Muammar Gaddafi’s feared intelligence chief Abdallah al-Senussi on Monday, sending a senior delegation to argue he must face Libyan justice.
Senussi, 62, the last major Gaddafi associate on the run since the dictator’s overthrow and death in a popular revolt last year, was arrested in Mauritania after he arrived there late on Friday on a flight from Morocco.
France and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague also want to take him into custody. The U.S. State Department also said it was in contact with Mauritania over Senussi but left open whether it would pursue the case.
A Mauritanian security source told Reuters authorities had yet to take a decision on the fate of Senussi, who is accused of playing a central role in repression and torture under Gaddafi.
Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour flew into Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott to urge the West African country to hand Senussi over, citing what he called a “community of interests” between the two Arab League members.
“We are attached to those ties and we are determined to take back Abdallah al-Senussi because he has committed crimes against Libyans, so that he can be judged in Libya by Libyan justice,” he told reporters at Nouakchott airport.
Sources close to the Mauritanian government said a meeting between the delegation and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had been scheduled for early Tuesday.
International human rights groups doubt Senussi will have a fair trial in Libya and have said it would be preferable for him to go to the ICC, which has indicted him on two counts of crimes against humanity during last year’s uprising.
Senussi was held at the headquarters of the security service in Nouakchott before being transferred to the police training school within a heavily guarded complex, local security sources said. Diplomatic sources said he had been carrying several false passports when he was detained.
A spokesman for the ICC said it had reminded Mauritania about the court’s warrant but was still waiting for a response. Mauritania is not one of the ICC’s member countries, but the court has pointed to a U.N. Security Council resolution urging all states to cooperate with it.
France is also seeking Senussi for his alleged role in the bombing of a UTA airliner over Niger in 1989, that killed 54 French nationals.
Senussi was Gaddafi’s right-hand man and security experts said Mauritania’s government would face huge diplomatic pressure in the tussle over a man with access to some of the best-kept secrets of the Gaddafi regime.
“He is a very big fish, and he has a Pandora’s box inside his brain. He knows everything about Gaddafi’s rule - security and intelligence systems going back 30 years or more,” said Khaeri Aboshagor, senior representative of the Libyan League for Human Rights.
Aboshagor, who is normally based in Britain but was speaking from Libya, said there was “pretty strong” information suggesting Morocco allowed Senussi to leave for Mauritania. He did not elaborate and Morocco has not commented on the case.
Senussi’s name has been linked to the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland of a Pan Am jet that killed 270 people. He is also widely thought to know details of Gaddafi’s cooperation with Western states.
“We’ve always been interested in what he has to say about that (Lockerbie),” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.
“I’m not in a position to speak about whether we will be involved at all. But obviously the Mauritanians are cooperating with everybody who has an interest in this,” she added.
Reed Brody, Brussels-based counsel for Human Rights Watch, said it was hard to discern any clear legal primacy over the competing claims for Senussi, paving the way for a bout of political and diplomatic maneuvering over his fate.
Brody, whose organization favors a transfer to the Hague because of current shortfalls in the Libyan justice system, noted nonetheless that Nouakchott was unlikely to face any legal repercussions if it did not send him to the ICC.
“It’s a legal free-for-all. What’s good is that everyone wants to prosecute him,” Brody said by telephone.
Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli, Mark John in Dakar, Peter Apps in London and Svebor Kranjc at the Hague; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Andrew Heavens