Egypt's security forces have won a round against Libya - tricking it into believing a Libyan hit squad had assassinated one of its expatriates who now lives in Cairo.
In a dramatic weekend press conference, Egyptian officials presented a smiling Abdel-Hamid Bakush, former Libyan prime minister, just 24 hours after Tripoli Radio had announced Mr. Bakush's assassination at the hands of a Libyan ''suicide squad.''
The revelation is likely to lead to further isolation of the unpopular Libyan regime. Radical Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has alienated both Western and Arab regimes by sanctioning a series of spectacular - and usually unsuccessful - attacks on embassies, people, and installations in countries ranging from Britain to Saudi Arabia.
Colonel Qaddafi's erratic regime has long caused problems for Egypt. In recent months, however, relations between the neighboring Arab countries have deteriorated sharply. Political analysts here, however, said that it is unlikely open hostilities would break out between the two nations in the near future.
At the Saturday night news conference called to reveal the foiling of the latest Libyan plot, Egyptian Interior Minister Ahmed Rushdi claimed that the Egyptians also had uncovered plots by the Libyans to carry out attacks on several other Arab and West European leaders.
''The battle between terrorism and civilized life continues,'' General Rushdi said.
The Egyptian ''sting'' operation against Qaddafi began to unfold Friday afternoon, when Tripoli Radio reported that Bakush, who has lived in exile since 1977, had been killed by a ''suicide squad'' because he ''sold his conscience to the enemies of the Arab nation and Libyan people.''
Bakush had indeed disappeared from his Cairo home. His brother told reporters that Bakush and his wife had disappeared five days before the Libyan radio broadcast was made. But Saturday, in a speech made during a rally in the Nile Delta city of Benha, Mubarak declared that Bakush was on holiday in Aswan.
That night, the Egyptians said they had been aware of the plot to kill Bakush since late October, and that they had monitored the separate arrivals of four hired agents to Cairo during October and early November. The four-man team was said to be composed of two Britons and two Maltese. Rushdi alleged that the men were recruited by a Libyan intelligence agent in Malta and promised $250,000 in exchange for assassinating Bakush.
The Libyan team reportedly hired Egyptians to carry out the plot, but the Egyptians were all Egyptian intelligence agents. The agents faked pictures of the wounded Bakush and delivered the ''evidence'' to the Libyans in Malta.
Rushdi said the Libyan ambassador to Malta then flew to Crete to report directly to Qaddafi, who was holding talks with French President Francois Mitterrand on the withdrawal of Libyan troops from Chad. The Libyan leader apparently accepted the evidence, and Tripoli Radio made its announcement.
A visibly moved Bakush said the attempt on his life ''proved to me and to the whole world that Qaddafi has lost his qualifications as a legitimate ruler. He has proved that he is an international criminal.''
Bakush was the last prime minister under the Libyan monarchy overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969. He is head of the Libya Liberation Organization, a group of expatriates opposed to Qaddafi's rule.