Gadhafi family's escape to Algeria angers Libya's rebel council

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2011 

CAIRO — Several members of fugitive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's family crossed into Algeria on Monday, complicating the interim rebel authority's goal of prosecuting members of his inner circle for allegedly siphoning off the country's oil wealth and contributing to human rights violations.

Gadhafi's wife, Safia, daughter, Aisha, sons Hannibal and Mohamed and their children crossed the border into Algeria at 8:45 a.m. Monday, according to a statement from Algeria's Foreign Ministry. News reports said Mourad Benmehidi, the Algerian ambassador to the United Nations, informed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the family's arrival.

The news that some of Gadhafi's family had escaped was greeted with bitterness in Libya.

"We have promised to provide a just trial to all those criminals, and therefore we consider this an act of aggression," Mahmoud Shamman, a spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional Council, told the Reuters news agency.

"We are warning anybody not to shelter Gadhafi and his sons. We are going after them in any place, to find them and arrest them," he said.

Gadhafi and his most visible son, Saif al Islam, remained at large a week after rebel forces ransacked the ruler's Tripoli compound and fought pitched battles against clusters of remaining loyalists.

Rebels said Monday that another of Gadhafi's six sons, Khamis, who commands an elite military unit, had been killed during battle, but there was no way to confirm that. The rebels have reported killing Khamis — erroneously — several times previously.

The whereabouts of Gadhafi and his family have been a major focus since rebels seized his Bab al Aziziya headquarters last week. Many Libyans believe Gadhafi may have taken refuge in the stronghold of Sirte, which rebels have yet to seize. Gadhafi and Saif al Islam have both vowed to stay in Libya and fight to the death.

But the escape of much of his family to Algeria raises questions about whether the fugitive leader might also have followed the same path out of the capital. Sirte lies 280 miles east of Tripoli along the country's coastal highway, while the nearest border crossing with Algeria lies nearly 350 miles to the southwest. Algeria did not say where precisely the Gadhafis had crossed.

Gadhafi's regime is now in shambles, with senior figures on the run or in rebel custody. The United States, along with several European and Arab nations, recognizes the National Transitional Council as the legitimate interim government of Libya.

Algeria, a longtime Gadhafi ally, has not, however, and remained supportive of the leader during the conflict. Rebel leaders have accused the Algerian government of funneling mercenaries to Libya to help Gadhafi's forces put down the rebellion.

The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, Saif al Islam and Gadhafi's brother-in-law and military intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, on charges of crimes against humanity. The three are believed to have led the deadly crackdown against the popular uprising that quickly turned into a NATO-backed armed rebellion.

The ICC hasn't issued warrants for the Gadhafi relatives who crossed into Algeria, but members of the rebel council had expressed hope that all senior regime figures would be tried before a Libyan court.

Rebel leaders demanded the return of the family members, but there was no immediate response from the Algerian government. Algeria is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty that established the ICC, so it's unclear whether the country would extradite the family even if arrest warrants were to be issued.

Safia Farkash, reportedly the owner of Libya's Buraq Airlines, was Gadhafi's second wife and kept a low profile during the crisis. Her children, however, are famous for their decadent lifestyles and strong support of their father.

Mohamed Gadhafi was born to Gadhafi's first wife during their short-lived marriage and was considered a minor figure in the regime, compared to his half siblings. He was seized by rebel forces last week while he was on the air with Al Jazeera television, but he was able to escape while under house arrest.

Aisha, Gadhafi's only daughter, is a Paris-trained attorney who was once part of Saddam Hussein's defense team. Swathed in the regime's signature green, she made several speeches and appearances at the height of the revolt, dismissing the rebels as terrorists in the employ of the U.S. and other Western powers to command Libya's vast oil wealth.

"America does not want to see democracy in the Arab countries. They want to set puppet governments in every country," Aisha Gadhafi reportedly told the Bangladesh-based Weekly Blitz newspaper over the weekend. She spoke by Google Talk from an unknown location, the paper said.

"Now they have attacked Libya. First they attacked Afghanistan and Iraq," the paper quoted her as saying.

CNN, citing unnamed sources close to the family, reported that Aisha is pregnant and due to give birth next month. She'd served as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Development Fund, to address HIV/AIDS and violence against women, but that position was terminated when Gadhafi's forces attacked protesters in the early days of the revolt.

Rebel forces that captured the family's fortress-like Bab al Aziziya compound last week rampaged through her private quarters, where they found evidence of a lavish lifestyle presumably financed by the country's oil wealth. Photos from the compound showed Aisha's golden mermaid-shaped settee, a huge swimming pool and racks of designer clothing.

Her brother Hannibal, who also crossed into Algeria, made international headlines through the years not only for his legendary extravagance — he threw parties where stars such as Beyonce and Mariah Carey performed — but also for his temper. In 2008, he was arrested in Switzerland for assaulting two of his servants, according to news reports.

On Monday, CNN, reporting from Hannibal's seaside home, showed the family's Ethiopian nanny, who was disfigured from horrendous burns that she said were inflicted on her because she refused to beat Hannibal's toddler. CNN also showed footage of rebels playing a white grand piano and rifling through boxes of Moet Champagne.

Amr ben Halim, an exiled Libyan opposition activist whose father was a pre-Gadhafi prime minister, said the CNN footage shows why the family must be extradited from Algeria immediately.

"These are people who have committed huge crimes in Libya, against Libyans and, as you've just shown, against poor people like this Ethiopian nanny," ben Halim told CNN.

At the Pentagon and the White House, officials said Monday that they believe Gadhafi is still in Libya but did not say why they thought so. That contrasted with last week's assessment, which placed Gadhafi still in Tripoli.

A NATO official told McClatchy that conclusions about Gadhafi's whereabouts are based on a mosaic of intelligence resources, including surveillance and assessments by the rebel council, but not firm evidence.

The official said NATO has increased its aerial surveillance of Sirte over the past 24 hours and has also stepped up bombing strikes, but is not targeting Gadhafi. Instead, the strikes are aimed at limiting the ability of Gadhafi's forces to operate.

"We see a concentration of Gadhafi loyalists based there," the NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about details of NATO and individual nations' efforts in Libya, told McClatchy. "That is why were a striking there."

The official said that at least four nations, France, Great Britain, Qatar and Jordan, have troops inside Libya helping in the search for Gadhafi, but he declined to provide details of their activities.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the U.S. had no intelligence about Gahafi's whereabouts. "If we knew where he was, we would pass that on to opposition forces," he said.

(Allam reported from Cairo, Youssef from Washington.)

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