LONDON (Reuters) - Plans to question Moussa Koussa in Britain over past crimes by Libyan agents have dimmed Western hopes that Muammar Gaddafi’s rule might implode after the defection of his former spy chief.
With the rebels in military disarray, some in the West have lost faith in their power to topple Gaddafi on the battlefield.
Instead, strategists say the coalition must do all it can to ensure Gaddafi’s grip on the capital Tripoli collapses from within, thereby averting a longer, bloodier and costlier war.
Koussa’s March 30 defection, many analysts reasoned at the time, would encourage others in Gaddafi’s entourage to follow suit and possibly set off a level of infighting in the security apparatus that could bring his government down.
Scottish police have said they want to question Koussa over the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing, and the International Criminal Court prosecutor has said he would like to talk to him about government attacks on Libyan civilians in recent weeks.
Fear of indictment in the West for any misdeeds of the past may now deter other potential defectors from following suit.
Perhaps mindful of public anger over the early release in 2009 of a Libyan jailed in Scotland for the Lockerbie bombing, the British government has insisted it will not give Koussa immunity from prosecution.
How this balance between justice and realpolitik plays out may profoundly affect coalition efforts to unseat Gaddafi.
There is no consensus on the impact of Britain’s stance.
“It could have a good splitting effect,” said Richard Barrett, a former senior British counter-terrorism official.
“While it may be discouraging to some around Gaddafi, at the same time it is quite a good way of showing those without (too much) blood on their hands that it would be sensible to get out before they are made complicit in something more serious.”
Koussa, head of Libya’s External Security Organisation from 1994 to 2009, when he became foreign minister, is believed to be in a safe house in Britain taking to British and U.S. intelligence officials. He has not been seen in public since he arrived from Tunisia a week ago.
He is probably among familiar faces, having helped lead talks with U.S. and British officials that drove a rapprochement between Libya and the West over the past decade.
The denial of immunity has pleased families of some of the Lockerbie victims, but analysts familiar with the Libyan leadership are in no doubt that Gaddafi has also taken heart.
Saad Djebbar, a former legal adviser to the Libyan government, said the questioning of Koussa was misguided.
“Local interests in Britain are being prioritized ahead of the greater good of ending this regime,” he said. “It is a serious mistake and will make getting further defections much more difficult.”
Noman Benotman, a friend of Koussa and an analyst at the Quilliam thinktank, said Gaddafi would use Koussa’s situation to show other potential defectors they should stick with him.
Koussa himself had not foreseen that his past could be a problem, Benotman said.
“When he flew here he didn’t expect these legal issues and hoped he would be well treated,” he said. “He thought these questions had all been sorted out in the earlier period.”
The questioning may not be restricted to Lockerbie. It may, commentators say, also range over killings and attempted killings of Libyans in Britain three decades ago, when Gaddafi publicly announced a drive to kill dissidents overseas.
Christopher Andrew, official historian of Britain’s MI5 Security Service, has written that its officials believed they had proof that Libya’s embassy directed “operational and intelligence gathering activities” against dissidents in Britain in 1980, at a time when Koussa was in effect ambassador.
Ken Macdonald, a former director of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, told Reuters that Koussa might have questions to answer about attacks on Libyan civilians after the uprising started in mid-February.
These could constitute war crimes prosecutable either at The Hague or in the UK courts under international treaties, he said.
Charles Crawford, a former British ambassador to Poland and Yugoslavia, said in a blog that Britain would have to be careful in its handling of the defector.
Koussa would know “almost everything about Gaddafi and his safe houses and how to get through to the closest people around him, for which vital information he’ll no doubt be demanding a high price,” Crawford wrote.
“Although we have to be careful — people like him were right at the heart of this vile regime, and we don’t want to give those Libyans risking their lives to fight for freedom the idea that even if they win all they’ll get is ‘Gaddafi 2 Lite’.”
Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at Britain’s Exeter University, rejected the idea that Koussa’s questioning would deter further defections, and said the interests of justice were extremely important.
“Not everyone associated with the Gaddafis is a Moussa Koussa. Gaddafi’s acolytes and associates are not monolithic and do not all have equal shares in his reign of terror,” he said.
“There must be no relaxation in the pursuit of justice.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball)
Editing by Paul Taylor