x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Libyan leader fights to hang on in country he has ruled for decades

Muammar Qaddafi remains defiant as he, his son and his spy chief now face the prospect of arrest warrants for crimes against humanity from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for planning the violent suppression of the Libyan uprising.

Muammar Qaddafi is battling Nato forces and could soon face charges from the International Criminal Court.
Muammar Qaddafi is battling Nato forces and could soon face charges from the International Criminal Court.

LONDON // While other Arab leaders folded quickly in the face of popular uprisings, Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has put up a bloody fight, taking on Nato as well as local insurgents who have seized half the country.

With his bedouin tents and heavily armed female bodyguards, along with a readiness to execute his opponents and turn his tanks on his opponents, Col Qaddafi has cut an eccentric and violent figure as Libya's leader for more than 40 years.

For most of that time he has held a prominent position in the West's international rogues' gallery, while maintaining tight control at home by eliminating dissidents and refusing to anoint a successor.

Col Qaddafi effected a successful rapprochement with the West by renouncing his weapons of mass destruction programme in return for an end to sanctions, but his government could not avoid the tide of revolution sweeping through the Arab world.

The Libyan leader, his son and his spy chief now face the prospect of arrest warrants for crimes against humanity from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for planning the violent suppression of the uprising.

As his oil-producing North African desert nation descended into civil war, Col Qaddafi's military responded with the deadly force that he had never been afraid to use, despite the showman image that captivated many.

As the insurgency gathered pace in mid-February, protesters were gunned down in their hundreds in Benghazi and other cities.

International pressure grew and Col Qaddafi found himself facing Nato bombing raids that knocked out his tanks and guns and also targeted his own headquarters in Tripoli. One raid killed his youngest son and three grandchildren.

It was not the first time that the West had killed a Qaddafi family member.

The US president Ronald Reagan sent war planes to bomb Col Qaddafi's Bab al Aziziyah compound in 1986. One of the 60 people killed was his adopted daughter.

Col Qaddafi used the Tripoli building bombed in the raid, left unrepaired for 25 years, to deliver one of his first defiant speeches of the ongoing war, standing beside a memorial in the shape of a giant metal fist crushing an American warplane.

In televised addresses in response to the rebellion in the east, Col Qaddafi blamed the unrest on rats and mercenaries and said they were brainwashed by Osama bin Laden and under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs used to spike their coffee.

There has been repeated speculation in the West that Col Qaddafi has either been killed or wounded in Nato air raids, but he has made carefully choreographed television appearances in response to the rumours.

In his most recent comments, on May 13, Col Qaddafi taunted Nato, saying its bombers could not find him.

"I am telling the coward crusaders that I am at a place you cannot reach and kill me," he said in an audio recording broadcast on al Jamahiriya television.

One of the world's longest-serving national leaders, Col Qaddafi has no official government function and is known as the "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution".

In tandem with his eccentricity, Col Qaddafi has a charisma that has won him support among many ordinary Libyans, though the depth of that support is hard to gauge because most people are too afraid of retaliation to speak openly.

Before his violent repression of the revolt, Col Qaddafi's readiness to take on Western powers and Israel, both with rhetoric and action, earned him a certain cachet with the wider Arab public who felt their own leaders were too supine.

Col Qaddafi was born in 1942, the son of a bedouin herdsman, in a tent near Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. He abandoned a geography course at university for a military career that included a short spell at a British army signals school.

Colonel Qaddafi took power in a bloodless military coup in 1969 when he toppled King Idriss, and in the 1970s he formulated his "Third Universal Theory", a middle road between communism and capitalism, as laid out in his "Green Book".

Col Qaddafi oversaw the rapid development of Libya, previously known for little more than oil wells and deserts where huge tank battles took place in the Second World War. The economy is now paying the price of war and sanctions.

One of his first tasks on taking power was to build up the armed forces, but he also spent billions of dollars of oil income on improving living standards, making him popular with poor Libyans.

Col Qaddafi embraced the pan-Arabism of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and tried without success to merge Libya, Egypt and Syria into a federation. A similar attempt to join Libya and Tunisia ended in acrimony.

In 1977 he changed the country's name to the Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah (State of the Masses) and allowed people to air their views at people's congresses.

However, for much of his rule he has been shunned by the West, which accused him of links to terrorism and revolutionary movements.

He was particularly reviled after the 1988 Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan agents in which 270 people were killed.

In September 2004, US President George W Bush formally ended a US trade embargo as a result of Col Qaddafi's scrapping of the arms programme and taking responsibility for Lockerbie.