BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - The emergence of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, surrounded by cheering, gun-toting supporters, may strike a blow to the credibility of rebels who said they had captured him, but seems unlikely to sap support in the longer term.
Libya’s rebel council, led by former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said on Sunday that Saif and another Gaddafi son, Mohammad Gaddafi, had been detained after rebel fighters streamed into to the capital Tripoli largely unopposed.
Now neither Saif, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with his father Muammar, nor Mohammad are in rebel custody.
The episode not only damages the rebels’ credibility and gives heart to Gaddafi’s supporters, it is likely to compound a nagging sense of unease among Libya’s foreign backers, who include the United States, Britain and France, about the rebels’ prospects for running the oil-rich North African country.
It is not clear whether Saif was indeed captured and then escaped, or if he was ever captured in the first place. A spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) said Saif had never been captured, but the NTC had been tricked into believing he had been.
“There was misinformation intentionally put out by fifth column people to discredit the NTC and they were successful,” NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.
The report of Saif’s capture was widely believed and welcomed by many Libyans as well as by Libya’s foreign backers and the ICC. Abdulmolah said the report had clearly not been investigated properly.
“They should not have come out with an announcement until they had seen him in handcuffs in front of them,” he said. “They came out with it based on someone’s misinformation and took it at face value.”
The movement against Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule sprang from Libya’s Arab Spring protests, beginning in the eastern city of Benghazi in February and meeting brutal force from government security forces.
A disparate coalition of untrained civilian fighters and former military men, young and old, religious and secular, the movement has not been able to shake off an appearance of disorganization, poor communication and confused lines of responsibility and command that at times seems to border on the chaotic.
The rebels’ military commander was killed in July in unexplained circumstances that raised fears of violent rivalry among opposition factions united only by a hatred of Gaddafi.
While Benghazi has been peaceful for months, pick-ups mounted with machine guns jostle with civilian cars on the streets at night, after people break their Ramadan fasts.
News of the rebels’ lightning advance on Tripoli at the weekend and Saif’s capture brought thousands of people out waving the red, green and black opposition flag. For hours, gunmen fired into the night sky in celebration.
While Saif was apparently never captured, his brother Mohammad was, but got away, rebel officials said. The head of military affairs for the NTC, Omar Hariri, said the rebels who captured Mohammad had let him stay with his own guards.
“They left his own bodyguards with him and he used this privilege and escaped,” said Hariri, who was one of the officers along with Gaddafi who overthrew King Idris in 1969.
A Western diplomat said Saif’s appearance on Monday night outside a hotel near his father’s well-fortified compound did not mean he was free to roam the city organizing, nor did it change the reality for the Gaddafis that “the game is over”.
“He’s definitely not driving around Tripoli the way the opposition are,” the second diplomat said.
“The story is that these are the final days of the Gaddafi regime. The NTC is still the authoritative body, this doesn’t change anything about that.”