ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi’s former heir apparent Seif al-Islam was captured by revolutionary fighters in the southern desert Saturday just over a month after his father was killed, setting off joyous celebrations across Libya and closing the door on the possibility that the fugitive son could stoke further insurrection.
Seif al-Islam — who has undergone a transformation from a voice of reform in an eccentric and reviled regime to one of Interpol’s most-wanted — now faces the prospect of trial before an international or Libyan court to answer for the alleged crimes of his late father’s four-decade rule over the oil-rich North African nation.
Thunderous celebratory gunfire shook the Libyan capital of Tripoli and other cities after Libyan officials said Seif al-Islam, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, had been detained wearing traditional Tuareg clothing about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the town of Obari in an area that borders Niger, Mali and Algeria.
A photograph was widely circulated showing the 39-year-old son, who had been the last wanted Gadhafi family member to remain at large, in custody, sitting by a bed and holding up three bandaged fingers as a guard looks on. Osama Juwaid, a spokesman for the fighters from Zintan who made the arrest, said it was an old injury caused by a NATO airstrike and the detainee was otherwise in good health.
"I am hopeful that the capture of Gadhafi’s son is the beginning of a chapter of transparency and democracy and freedom," Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib at a news conference in the western mountain town of Zintan, where Seif al-Islam was taken after his capture.
It was unclear what would happen next, with the international community urging Libyan authorities to ensure he is treated humanely and to cooperate with the ICC on bringing him to trial.
The emergence of Seif al-Islam as the only Gadhafi in custody to face justice posed a major test of the interim government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The murky circumstances surrounding the deaths of the reviled Libya leader and another son Muatassim on Oct. 20, and the decision to lay their bodies out for public viewing drew widespread criticism.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told The Associated Press that he will travel to Libya next week for talks with the country’s transitional government on where the trial will take place. Ocampo said that while national governments have the first right to try their own citizens for war crimes, his primary goal was to make sure Seif al-Islam receives a fair trial.
"The good news is that Seif al-Islam is arrested, he is alive, and now he will face justice," Ocampo said in an interview in The Hague. "Where and how, we will discuss it."
Seif al-Islam’s capture leaves only former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi wanted by the ICC, which indicted the two men along with Gadhafi in June for unleashing a campaign of murder and torture to suppress the uprising that broke out in mid-February. Protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the region soon escalated into a civil war, with NATO launching airstrikes under a U.N.-mandate to protect civilians.
Other photos and video clips showed Seif al-Islam wearing glasses and a beard, clothed in brown robes and a turban in the style of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic community that spans the desert border area of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad and long fought for his father’s regime. In some, he was bundled onto an airplane that apparently carried him to Zintan, 85 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli.
Libya’s transitional government has struggled to consolidate control over the country and form a new government and build many institutions from scratch after months of violence and the refusal of several armed factions to lay down their weapons or join the national forces. International rights groups also have documented widespread prisoner abuse mainly aimed at former Gadhafi supporters, casting doubt on reconciliation efforts as the country tries to forge a democracy.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who played an active role in his country’s early stance on the side of the rebels who rose up against Gadhafi, alleged that Seif al-Islam was at least as much to blame for past atrocities against Libyans as his father.
"His arrest is a real important moment. It’s the real end of this war," Levy said during an interview in London, adding his voice to calls for Seif al-Islam to be judged by an international court.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Seif al-Islam should be held accountable for his actions but urged the Libyans to treat all prisoners in full accordance with international standards.
"His capture and trial would be another step away from a 40-year dark chapter in Libyan history and help move the Libyan people toward the peaceful and democratic future they deserve," the State Department said.
It was a dramatic turnabout for Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who is the oldest of seven children of Moammar and Safiya Gadhafi. He had one older half brother, Mohammed.
The British-educated son, who speaks fluent English, spent years touting himself as a liberalizing reformer in the autocratic regime, and he helped broker the agreement that saw Moammar Gadhafi renounce his weapons of mass destruction program and begin his journey back into the international fold after decades of isolation.
But Seif al-Islam staunchly backed his father in his brutal crackdown on rebels in the regime’s final days, warning of "rivers of blood" if demonstrators refused to accept government offers of reform.
He went underground after Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August and was widely reported to have been hiding in the besieged town of Bani Walid, issuing audio recordings to try to rally support for his father, but he escaped before it fell to revolutionary forces.
"This is the day of victory, this is the day of liberation, finally the son of the tyrant has been captured," said Mohammed Ali, an engineer, as he celebrated on Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, formerly called Green Square when it was the site often used by Gadhafi for fiery speeches. "Now we are free, now we are free, God is Great."
Revolutionary forces from the Zintan brigade said the arrest was made after midnight by fighters originally in the area to help with border protection when they got a tip that Seif al-Islam would try to flee the country.
Ahmad Ammar Abdullah al-Zintani, who was at the scene, said a group of 15 fighters armed with pistols, heavy machine guns and a rocket-grenade launcher took up positions on two hills overlooking the road at 10 p.m. Friday, then moved to surround two cars entering the area below about three hours later.
"Seif was in the second car. When the first car came forward we surrounded them and they didn’t resist. And then the second car came up they tried to escape from the right and they got stuck in the sand, and Seif came out with three others," al-Zintani said.
He also said Seif al-Islam’s thumb, index and middle finger on his right hand had been injured in a NATO airstrike and wrapped in a cloth since they couldn’t be treated medically.
"We found out that he was trying to go to Niger hoping he could take over Libya again," al-Zintani said, echoing fears that Gadhafi’s son could foment violence if he had remained in hiding.
Others said Seif al-Islam looked tired when he was caught.
"He was suffering from malnutrition and anemic because he had lived in the desert for a while. He was being protected by the al-Megarha tribe, which has been split in half over the revolution," Badawi Mohammed said. Members of the al-Megarha tribe include Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Bashir al-Tlayeb, who first announced the capture at a press conference in Tripoli, also claimed Seif al-Islam was caught with two aides who were trying to smuggle him into Niger, but the NTC’s justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, said the detention was closer to the Algerian border and the convoy’s destination was not known.
Seif al-Islam was being held in Zintan but would be transported to Tripoli soon, according to al-Alagi.
Libya’s Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said the NTC had not taken an official position yet, but in his personal view, Seif al-Islam "is an outlaw and should be tried in front of the Libyan Court, by Libyan people and by Libyan justice."
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague called the arrest an important step forward as Libya tries to put its past behind it.
"I welcome the Libyan authorities’ commitment to ensure his detention and trial meet international standards," Hague said. "His arrest will allow the Libyan people to move on to the challenge of rebuilding their country."