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How US, British intelligence worked to bring Qaddafi's Libya in from the cold

Documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli detail how the CIA and Britain’s MI6 worked to develop warm ties with Libya's Muammar Qaddafi after he vowed to give up weapons of mass destruction.

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HRW first proved that point in 1991, when it scoured close to 5 million pages of captured Iraqi secret police and intelligence files spirited intact from northern Iraq during the Kurdish uprising. Those files yielded clear evidence that the Iraqi regime engaged in genocide against ethnic Kurds.

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While it may be months or years before Libya’s archives yield the many secrets of Qaddafi’s four decades in power, the details of rendition are already having an impact. Most sensitive in Libya will be the case of Belhadj, upon whose shoulders largely rests hopes of a peaceful transition of power in the capital.

On March 4, 2004, the CIA wrote to their Libyan counterparts that they were “working energetically” with the Malaysian government to arrange his extradition. Within hours, the plan was put together to snatch Belhadj and his wife during a flight stopover in Bangkok, after which, the CIA said, it would “be very happy to service your debriefing requirements.”

The “schedule for the rendition” of March 6, 2004, included a plane departing Dulles Airport in Washington, then flying to Tripoli, then onwards to Seychelles for an overnight stay, Bangkok, Diego Garcia, and then Tripoli again. Libyan agents were requested to be English speakers, and told that proper documents were “imperative” for the Seychelles portion.

Mr. Allen, the MI6 counterterrorism chief, wrote on March 18, 2004, to the head of Libyan intelligence, saying it was British intelligence that had ensnared Belhadj.

“I congratulate you on the safe arrival of [Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years. I am so glad.”

Allegations of torture

Belhadj alleges that he was tortured during his rendition and during seven years in prison. He told the Guardian newspaper on Sunday that British agents were among the first to interrogate him in Tripoli.

“I wasn’t allowed a bath for three years and I didn’t see the sun for one year,” Belhadj told the Guardian. “They hung me from the wall and kept me in an isolation cell. I was regularly tortured.” That torture, Belhadj alleged, included being “put in a container surrounded by ice,” sleep deprivation, and constant noise.

“This will not stop the new Libya having orderly relations with the United States and Britain,” he said. “But it did not need to happen.”

But will cooperation be as close with Libya’s transitional authority – which has relied on US, British, French, Qatari, and other outside intelligence, weapons, and aircraft to overthrow Qaddafi – as it was with the former regime?

One British document dated April 24, 2003, described preparations for a joint CIA-MI6 visit to Tripoli. It pointed out how agents were going out of their way for the visit: “We are chartering a private plane for the journey in order to make our arrival as discreet as possible.”

The Libyans were told that the US-UK team of 10 had not fixed a return date because “the key is to ensure that we have made enough joint progress on this important project … and can assure our respective political masters that this is the case.”

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