Guardian: aide to Gaddafi sons in London may be seeking ‘way out’ **UPDATE: 10 more possible defections

Libyans protest in front of their foreign ministry in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday July 24, 2008, holding a picture of the dictator Muommar Gaddafi's son, Hannibal who was arrested July 15 at a luxury hotel in Geneva for allegedly beating two of their servants. (AP Photo/ Abdel Magid Al Fergany)

More possible defections from Muommar Gaddafi loyalists, and a timely visit to London by a trusted aide may signal the beginning of the end for the Libyan dictatorship.

From The Guardian:

Colonel Gaddafi’s regime has sent one of its most trusted envoys to London for confidential talks with British officials, the Guardian can reveal.

Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, visited London in recent days, British government sources familiar with the meeting have confirmed.

The contacts with Ismail are believed to have been one of a number between Libyan officials and the west in the last fortnight, amid signs that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy.

Disclosure of Ismail’s visit comes in the immediate aftermath of the defection to Britain of Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister and the country’s former external intelligence head, who has been Britain’s main conduit to the Gaddafi regime since the early 1990s.

A team led by the British ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, and MI6 officers, embarked on a lengthy debriefing of Koussa at a safe house after he flew into Farnborough airport on Wednesday night from Tunisia. Government sources said the questioning would take time because Koussa’s state of mind was “delicate” after he left his family in Libya. The Foreign Office declined “to provide a running commentary” on contacts with Ismail or other regime officials. But news of the meeting comes amid mounting speculation that Gaddafi’s sons, foremost among them Saif al-Islam, Saadi and Mutassim, are anxious to explore a way out of the crisis in Libya.

“There has been increasing evidence recently that the sons want a way out,” said a western diplomatic source.

Although he has little public profile in either Libya or internationally, Ismail is recognised by diplomats as being a key fixer and representative for Saif al-Islam.

According to cables published by WikiLeaks, Ismail has represented the Libyan government in arms purchase negotiations and acted as an interlocutor on military and political issues.

“The message that was delivered to him is that Gaddafi has to go and that there will be accountability for crimes committed at the international criminal court,” a Foreign Office spokesman told the Guardian , declining to elaborate on what else may have been discussed.

Some aides working for Gaddafi’s sons, however, have made it clear that it may be necessary to sideline their father and explore exit strategies to prevent the country descending into anarchy.

The Guardian reports one idea that was floated was for Gaddafi to step aside and give up “real power” to a caretaker, who would then lead a government that included the opposition, but that idea was unlikely to fly with the rebels, or with the international community, all of whom want to see him gone. The story also gives more details on the defection of Moussa Koussa, and other possible defections:

The revelation that contacts between Britain and a key Gaddafi loyalist had taken place came as David Cameron hailed the defection of Koussa as a sign the regime was crumbling. “It tells a compelling story of the desperation and the fear right at the very top of the crumbling and rotten Gaddafi regime,” he said.

Ministers regard Koussa’s move to abandon his family as a sign of the magnitude of his decision. “Moussa Koussa is very worried about his family,” one source said. “But he did this because he felt it was the best way of bringing down Gaddafi.”

Britain learned that Koussa wanted to defect when he made contact from Tunisia. He had made his way out of Libya in a convoy of cars after announcing that he was going on a diplomatic mission to visit the new government in Tunis.

Britain took seriously reports last night that Ali al-Treki, Libya’s minister for Africa, had announced in Cairo that he too had abandoned the regime. Officials were checking reports last night that Tarek Khalid Ibrahim, the deputy head of mission in London, is also defecting.

UPDATE: From the Independent UK, news of more possible defections:

The British Government said it was in urgent talks with up to another 10 senior figures in Colonel Gaddafi’s creaking regime about possible defection following the dramatic arrival in Britain of the Libyan dictator’s chief henchman for much of his 40 years in power.

As former foreign minister Moussa Koussa was reported to be “talking voluntarily” to British officials yesterday, the Libyan regime was desperately struggling to limit the damage of the stunning desertion, suggesting he was exhausted and suffering from mental problems.

But its capacity to stop the domino effect appeared to be limited. The Independent understands that British officials are already in contact with up to 10 leading Libyan officials about following Mr Koussa’s lead and deserting Gaddafi. As Libyan diplomats at the United Nations said they expected further defections and reports emerged that a senior figure in the country’s London embassy had changed sides, David Cameron said others should now “come to their senses”. Meanwhile, speculation was rife in Tripoli that a series of defections was imminent. And it was reinforced by the confirmation that Ali Abdussalam Treki, a top Libyan official who had also served as Foreign Minister and UN ambassador, had quit over the “spilling of blood” by government forces.

But despite official denials, unverified rumours circulating in Tripoli, fuelled by an Al Jazeera report, focused most closely on Abuzed Omar Durda, head of the external intelligence service, Mohammed Zwei, the Secretary of the General People’s Congress, and Deputy Foreign Minister Abdulati Al Obeidi, who accompanied Moussa Koussa at least as far as Tunis on the first leg of what turned out to be the Foreign Minister’s flight to the UK. A fourth official, the urbane Shokri Ghanem, Oil minister, denied he had fled and told Reuters he was in his office in Tripoli.

Rebels claimed that Mr Durda had been sent to “liquidate” Mr Koussa but instead joined a group of Libyan officials at Tunisia’s Djerba airport who were planning to defect.

There had been speculation last month from Washington that Abdullah Senussi, a top security adviser and brother-in-law of Colonel Gaddafi’s, could have been looking for an exit route from the crisis, either for the country or for himself personally. But there was no evidence last night that he had deserted, or intended to do so.

It is also understood that British officials have spoken to Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who visited London recently. The contact was part of the concerted attempt by the Foreign Office to reach out to members of the Gaddafi regime to encourage them to defect or at least disassociate themselves from the regime.

Last night, British government sources played down the significance of the contact with Mr Ismail but confirmed that there were ongoing discussions with a number of Libyan contacts – which were built up around the time of Britain’s rapprochement with Libya – in an attempt to build on Moussa Koussa’s defection. “This is very much part of business as usual,” one source said.

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