x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Qaddafi son remains in hiding as proof emerges he hired mercenaries

International Criminal Court says it has proof that Saif Al Islam Qaddafi hired mercenaries, while Niger risks protests from nomads if it fulfils its promise to hand him over.

NIAMEY, BEIJING // The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court yesterday said he had "substantial evidence" Saif Al Islam Qaddafi helped hire mercenaries to attack civilians protesting his father's rule.

The son of the deposed Libyan dictator could be heading for Niger, which risks upsetting its own pro-Qaddafi Tuareg nomads if it hands him over to the ICC in line with its treaty obligations, as it promised to do if he showed up on its territory.

"We have a witness who explained how Saif was involved with the planning of the attacks against civilians, including in particular the hiring of core mercenaries from different countries and the transport of them, and also the financial aspects he was covering," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters during a visit to Beijing.

Saif Al Islam, 39, has been desperately seeking to avoid the fate of his father, Muammar Qaddafi, who was beaten, abused and shot after forces of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) captured him on October 20 following the fall of his hometown, Sirte.

The NTC may try Saif Al Islam itself but the fugitive has been in indirect contact with the ICC over a possible surrender, although he may also hope mercenaries can move him to a friendly African country.

Neighbouring Niger has vowed to honour its ICC commitments but knows handing him over could spark unrest in Saharan areas where Qaddafi, feted by many desert-dwellers as a hero, nurtured past Tuareg revolts against the capital.

A senior member of Niger's coalition government said Saif Al Islam's whereabouts remained unknown but that surrender was his best option.

"It's perhaps best that he goes of his own accord rather than to be hunted and caught by Libyans who will end up lynching him as they did to his father," said Habi Mahamadou Salissou, vice-president of the Nigerian Democratic Movement.

Mr Moreno-Campo said the ICC had witnesses against Saif Al Islam.

"We have substantial evidence to prove the case but of course Saif is still [presumed] innocent and [would] have to go to court and the judge will decide," he said.

Mr Moreno-Ocampo said he would brief the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday about the ICC's work in Libya.

The Hague-based court warned Saif Al Islam that it could order a mid-air interception if he tried to flee by plane.

"We received through an informal intermediary some questions from Saif apparently about the legal system - what happens to him if he appears before the judges, can he be sent to Libya, what happens if he's convicted, what happens if he's acquitted," said Mr Moreno-Ocampo.

"We are not in any negotiations with Saif," he said, adding the court would not later force him to return to Libya provided another country was willing to receive him after he is either acquitted or convicted and had served his sentence.

The NTC's interim information minister, Mahmoud Shammam, said the council had not discussed the indirect contacts between Saif Al Islam and the ICC.

Niger had not commented on statements by local northern leaders that Saif Al Islam was probably on its side of the mountains straddling its porous border with Libya, Algeria and Mali.

A legislator in Mali, Ibrahim Assaleh Ag Mohamed, denied reports that Qaddafi's former intelligence chief, Abdullah Al Senussi, also wanted by the ICC, was in his country. Neither would be accepted if they tried to enter, he added.

Algeria, which took in Saif Al Islam's mother, sister, brother Hannibal and half-brother Mohammed, was not a signatory to the treaty that set up the ICC. Nor are Sudan and Zimbabwe.

* Reuters