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Libya's National Transitional Council says that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the last of Muammar Qaddafi's sons remaining at large and the late leader's one-time heir apparent, has requested safe passage out of the country so that he can turn himself over to the International Criminal Court.
Former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, who is also the subject of an international warrant, also reportedly wants to turn himself in. The surrender of both men could help the new Libya make a clean break with the Qaddafi era and ease the transition to a new political order.
According to an NTC official, Saif al-Islam is being sheltered by the nomadic Tuareg tribe that calls the border region home, Reuters reports. Others in his family escaped to Libya's southern neighbors through the same area. But taking refuge in another country is more difficult for Saif al-Islam because he is the subject of an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity during the early stages of Libya's uprising.
If Saif al-Islam's willingness to surrender is confirmed, it would mark yet another reversal in his behavior. At the outset of Libya's uprising, he shocked the international community when he transformed from "an internationally well-connected philanthropist and liberal reformer" to "a soldier ready to die rather than capitulate," according to a separate Reuters report.
Previous to the uprising, he had been perceived as a reformer and "the acceptable, Western-friendly face of Libya," Reuters notes. Indeed, the dissertation he wrote while at the London School of Economics was titled, "The role of civil society in the democratization of global governance institutions."
In a New York Times profile of Saif al-Islam from 2010, he is credited with guiding the country toward nuclear disarmament and mending ties with the West. He made repeated calls for a democracy in Libya and rejected an offer to take over leadership of a group of local leaders.
In his first public comments on the subject in London in January, Seif Qaddafi said that until Libya adopted democratic institutions he would stay on the political sideline.
“I will not accept any position unless there is a new constitution, new laws and transparent elections,” he said. “Everyone should have access to public office. We should not have a monopoly on power.”
Instead, he has continued his high-wire act, using his status to occasionally challenge his father’s ways — pushing for openness, opposing the ubiquitous revolutionary committees, allowing human rights critics into the country — while trying to retain his viability as his father’s successor.
But the reformer-turned-soldier has lost any influence he once enjoyed and poses little threat to the stability of Libya now, Reuters reports.
Analysts doubt that Saif al-Islam could lead a serious insurgency against Libya's rulers, saying his influence is much reduced with his dominating and intimidating father now dead.
"The answer really is a big 'no'. Saif rose to prominence by virtue of being his father's son," said Jon Marks, chairman of the consultancy Cross Border Information.
"Ironically, his biggest boosters during the 'Saif years' – when he was prominent but perhaps never dominant given his father's leading role pulling the strings – are the very governments and politicians who ended up bombing his regime into oblivion."
MSNBC reports that Saif al-Islam showed little appetite in recent weeks for leading an insurgency against the fledgling National Transitional Council. As its victory looked increasingly certain, he became panicky, a Qaddafi loyalist said.
"He was nervous. He had a Thuraya (satellite phone) and he called his father many times," said al-Senussi Sharif al-Senussi, an officer who was part of Saif al-Islam's personal security team until Bani Walid fell to the NTC on October 17.
"He repeated to us: don't tell anyone where I am. Don't let them spot me. He was afraid of mortars. He seemed confused."
The NTC official told Reuters that they know Saif al-Islam's location from tracking satellite phone calls and sifting through intelligence cables, but that they lack the "logistical capabilities" to intercept him in the southern desert. They may be hoping for NATO assistance with tracking him down, but NATO appears eager to bring its Libya operation to a close.