THE night former Libyan Foreign Minister Monsour Kikhia disappeared from his Cairo hotel room, he told a relative that he was meeting with an agent of the Libyan regime. The next day, a car with Libyan diplomatic plates was spotted crossing into Libya. The timing was consistent with Mr. Kikhia's last sighting in Cairo, but there was no positive identification - diplomatic vehicles are not required to stop at the border crossing.
The Egyptian investigation of what happened to Kikhia nearly a month ago continues, but few observers believe that he will be found alive.
``Kikhia appears to have been the prime target of Col. [Muammar] Qaddafi's new campaign against his political opponents, and the effect of his disappearance has been to terrify every Libyan oppositionist, and that was probably the purpose,'' explains a Cairo-based diplomat.
Colonel Qaddafi is under unprecedented internal and international political pressures.
American and British determination to win the extradition of two Libyans, allegedly responsible for blowing up the Pan Am airliner five years ago over Lockerbie, Scotland, led in December to a tightening of United Nations sanctions against the Libyan government. But informed sources believe that these will take another 18 months ``to bite.''
In the current climate of increasing doubts whether the Libyan regime was the sole instigator of the Pan Am disaster, it is highly unlikely that the UN sanctions can be stepped up in future. This may have led Qaddafi to conclude that the US government was moving to support domestic opposition to his regime, diplomatic sources in Cairo say.
Challenges on the home front in recent months that appear to have rattled the colonel and may be at the heart of his apparent resort to the terror tactics, from which he has publicly distanced himself since 1987. In particular an Army rebellion in October, though aborted, struck at the heart of Qaddafi's powerbase.
Then in November, Libyan dissidents from a wide range of organizations, including leading independent figures such as Mansour Kikhia, met in Washington for a conference titled ``Libya After Qaddafi.''
Qaddafi responded by urging Libyans on a state broadcast to destroy opposition figures. Another broadcast just a day after Kikhia's disappearance expressed readiness to ``crush traitors and spies.''
Two weeks after the event, the Libyan authorities denied that they were involved in the snatch and said it was up to Egypt to solve the case.
Indeed the disappearance has deeply embarrassed the Egyptian government, which appears to have been taken completely off guard by Kikhia's kidnapping.
There was no official information for four days. Possibly rumors that Egypt was somehow complicit in the kidnapping prompted officials to finally act.
Most observers consider it very unlikely, though, that Egypt was involved in the kidnapping. Not only is the Egyptian government highly cautious in its dealings with the Libyan regime, it is also aware that Kikhia's close relationship with the US could bring pressure from Washington, Egypt's most generous international backer. Indeed, deep concern at Kikhia's disappearance and requests to aid in finding him were almost immediately expressed by Washington.
Yet it is possible that the Egyptians have been complacent in their dealings with the Libyans - underestimating the desperation with which Tripoli was viewing the growing confidence of the opposition abroad.
Cairo has been anxious to obtain Libyan cooperation in controlling the infiltration of Egyptian Islamic militants returning from Afghanistan through the Libyan border.
At the end of November, a meeting took place in Cairo between senior intelligence officials from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The meeting reflected Egypt's growing concern to unify an intelligence offensive against Islamic militants. It is known that the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah Sanussi was in Cairo, diplomatic sources say.
There is speculation that Mr. Sanussi may have used the opportunity to re-negotiate the permissive Egyptian attitude to the presence of Libyan dissidents in Cairo. More administrative harassment of Libyan opposition may have been agreed to, but there is general concensus that the Egyptians would never have agreed to a Libyan snatch in Cairo.