Tuesday, October 25, 2011

SAS leading desert race against time to trap Saif as he heads to NigerBy SAM GREENHILL and DAVID WILLIAMS
Last updated at 1:51 AM on 26th October 2011
British Special Forces are engaged in a frantic desert manhunt for Colonel Gaddafi’s fugitive son Saif al-Islam.

The London-educated playboy, 39, is the last member of the hated despot’s family still feared to be at large in Libya.

Yesterday the southern border area with Niger was the focus of an intense search operation said to include elite troops from Britain and Qatar.

Gaddafi's eldest son from his second wife, Saif Al-Islam was the dictator's favourite and one-time heir apparent. He is the last member of Gaddafi's family still at large in Libya

The race is on to prevent Saif – wanted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague - escaping over the border into one of Libya’s neighbours, where other members of the Gaddafi clan have already found refuge.

Saif, who holds the secrets to Gaddafi’s 42-year reign, has been on the run since last Thursday when his father and brother Mutassim, 34, were captured and killed in Sirte.

A defiant broadcast from Saif was aired on Syrian television on Sunday, though it is not clear when it was recorded.

He vowed: ‘We continue our resistance. I’m in Libya, alive, free and intend to go to the very end and exact revenge.

‘I say go to hell, you rats and Nato behind you.

‘This is our country, we live in it, and we die in it and we are continuing the struggle.’

Intelligence sources said the playboy, once a confidante of some of Britain’s leading Establishment figures, is believed to have swapped vehicles several times to avoid detection.

British Special Forces and reconnaissance forces are understood to be on the ground and involved in the manhunt, along with Libyan rebel fighters.

They are being assisted by Nato spy planes sweeping over the vast area conducting aerial searches, and also by sophisticated electronic eavesdropping to match Saif’s voice if he uses his phone.

Laid back: Gaddafi poses on a sofa with two of his sons, believed to be Mohammed, left, and Saif, right, and his daughter, Ayesha
Any incoming calls from Niger and Algeria, where the Gaddafi family and their former security chief Abdullah al-Senussi fled, can be tracked.

British spies also have the numbers from seized Gaddafi phones and those belonging to Saif’s brother Saadi and sister Aisha, who escaped Libya earlier in the year.

However Libya’s 2,700-mile desert border is impossible to secure. One source described it as being ‘like a sieve…anyone can slip through. It is too big and too empty to police in any conventional form.’

The fate of Saif, who studied at the London School of Economics and owned a £10million London house, will be being keenly watched by certain figures in Britain.

If he is captured and brought to trial, he would doubtless take the opportunity to grandstand about his relationships with Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and Prince Andrew.

Any court appearance by Saif would inevitably turn a spotlight on Britain’s attempts to foster a relationship with Gaddafi’s favoured son, who became the West’s ‘point man’ after Tony Blair signed the notorious ‘Deal in the Desert’ in March 2004.

Last year Saif described Mr Blair as a ‘personal family friend’ and said he had visited Libya ‘many, many times’ since leaving Downing Street.

There have been conflicting reports about Saif’s escape. Some say he was injured in Sirte when Nato warplanes struck the convoy his father was in.

Amid the carnage and confusion, he apparently slipped the net and regrouped with other fugitives from the entourage and is protected by the Nomadic Tuareg tribe.

Earlier this week, rebel forces surrounded an area near the Gaddafi stronghold desert town of Bani Walid, following a possible sighting. Bani Walid is about 100 miles south west of Tripoli, and is on the way towards Niger.

One Libyan official, quoted by Reuters, said: ‘He’s on the triangle of Niger and Algeria. He’s south of Ghat [an oasis town in southern Libya]. He was given a false Libyan passport.’

He said Saif’s escape was being masterminded by Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief Senussi, who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Yesterday Rissa ag Boula, an adviser to Niger’s president, said that ethnic Tuaregs – long kept sweet with handouts from Gaddafi, and among his strongest supporters - were helping guide Saif across the sands.

Mr Boula said: ‘If he comes here, the government will accept him - but the government will also need to respect its international obligations. It is up to him to decide.’ He said Saif appeared to be poised to cross into Algeria in order to make his way to Niger, the same route that his brother Saadi and more than 30 other Gaddafi loyalists had used in September.

Niger’s government has said the fugitives would not be turned back to Libya without guarantees for their safety. It claims most of the group is currently under house arrest in the capital, Niamey, in a gated compound.

Mosques and hotels throughout Niger were built by Gaddafi and he remains deeply popular in the nation, making it a natural sanctuary for fleeing members of his inner circle.

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