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Spy who came in from Libya's cold

A burst of secret diplomatic activity over Libya, signalled by the sudden defection of its foreign minister and former spy chief, has fuelled hopes in Western capitals that Muammar Gaddafi's regime may be crumbling after appearing to gain the upper hand over rebel forces.

world Updated: Apr 02, 2011 01:51 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

A burst of secret diplomatic activity over Libya, signalled by the sudden defection of its foreign minister and former spy chief, has fuelled hopes in Western capitals that Muammar Gaddafi's regime may be crumbling after appearing to gain the upper hand over rebel forces.

The British capital has been awash with speculation about Gaddafi's impending collapse after the mysterious Moussa Koussa turned up at a private airport in Farnborough on Wednesday afternoon. He had crossed over to Tunisia in a motor convoy, ostensibly on a 'diplomatic mission,' and hopped it to Britain in a private jet.

In a setting strongly reminiscent of Cold War intrigue, Koussa was being 'debriefed' on Friday by top British diplomats and intelligence officers in a 'safe house' - a secure location where spies can be hidden. The official team is said to include Britain's ambassador to Libya Richard Northern and officers of the MI6 spy agency.

Speculation mounted further when a senior aide to Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi's sons and the dictator's heir apparent, was reported on Friday to have visited London recently looking for an exit strategy for the regime. "There has been increasing evidence recently that the sons want a way out," The Guardian quoted a western diplomatic source as saying.

Ismail, who has since left London, was told by the British that "Gaddafi has to go, and that there will be accountability for crimes committed at the International Criminal Court."

It is a fate that may well await 61-year-old Moussa Koussa too. Described by two Scottish campaigners as "the scariest man" they have ever met, Koussa has had a violent and uneven relationship with Britain. In 1980, he was kicked out as Libya's Ambassador after telling The Times: "The revolutionary committees have decided last night to kill two more people [exiles] in the United Kingdom. I approve of this."

In the mid-1990s he was named by some intelligence sources as the possible mastermind of two acts of international terrorism: the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people were killed, and the 1989 blowing up of a French airliner in Niger, in which 170 people died. There is a likelihood that the Scottish police will want to question him now.

Years later, he was instrumental in persuading Gaddafi to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme and helping the West track the proliferation trail of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. The British government says Koussa is in a "fraught mental state," but will not be offered immunity.

"We can't give him an amnesty as it will be invalid in international law," said noted international lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. "We can give him medical treatment, but he is a man of infinite treachery. He may be telling MI6 what he thinks it wants to hear. It's not for us to give him absolution."

Koussa is reportedly willing to cooperate with British authorities, prompting some analysts to suggest he should follow the legal precedent set by Bosnian war criminals who have struck plea bargains with prosecutors.

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