The decision by Seif al-Islam Qaddafi’s captors to take him to a secret location in the remote Libyan mountain town of Zintan rather than the capital Tripoli reflects a wider problem of powerful local militias and a weak central government.
“He will stay here because it is a safe place for him,” the head of Zintan’s military council Osama al-Juwali told Reuters on Sunday, adding he would remain for the foreseeable future.
“I also think that Seif should be tried in Zintan,” he said.
Three months after Muammar Qaddafi fled the capital, Libya’s cabinet has yet to be announced and its prime minister is dithering, under pressure from myriad rebel commanders all wanting a piece of the political pie.
It was Zintan fighters who caught Qaddafi’s son and heir apparent and a Zintan pilot who flew him to the impoverished town in the Western, or Nafusa, Mountains, just a couple of hours drive south of the capital.
After the older Qaddafi was brutally beaten and eventually killed in his hometown of Sirte, Libya’s revolutionary fighters were scolded by the international community.
Zintan - distrustful of other militias in Libya - is keen not to repeat previous mistakes and clearly wants to keep hold of its prize catch.
Zintan commanders, Seif al-Islam’s captors and residents say the reason he is being held here, and not under the command of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in the capital, is to protect him from the bloody fate of his father.
“We had to fly Seif to Zintan because it is the only place to guarantee his safety,” said Farid Abu Ali, a Zintan fighter who was sent from Tripoli to transfer him to Zintan from the Saharan town of Obari, near where he was captured early on Saturday morning.
“If he was taken to Tripoli, or anywhere else, there is a fear he could be killed by angry fighters who want revenge,” he added.
On Sunday Abdullah Mehdi, a Zintan fighter and pilot of the Russian-built military aircraft that flew Seif al-Islam to Zintan, hosted his aircrew and some of the fighters who helped in the capture at his farmhouse on a cliff overlooking the town.
Smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, the group chatted excitedly about the day before.
“Seif told me that he wanted to come to Zintan,” said the pilot. “He knew he would be fine here.”
Mehdi, 49, defected from the Libyan air force early this year to fight Qaddafi’s forces on the outskirts of Zintan.
In previous interviews, he became livid recalling the shelling by Qaddafi forces of his mother’s farmhouse in Zintan, but having captured the dictator’s hated son, he seemed calmed and pensive.
“The story of Seif is a tragedy. His father is dead, his brothers are dead and his mother and sister have fled,” he said in a voice made hoarse by chain-smoking.
When Seif al-Islam left Mehdi’s plane on Saturday to crowds of angry Zintan residents, the pilot was seen holding his hand.
“Zintan has a long history of fighting. Our grandfathers and generations before have told us to treat prisoners well,” he said.
Zintan is an impoverished town of around 35,000 people but is notorious in Libya for the voracity of its fighters, both against the Italian occupation of Libya in the early 20th century and this year during the Libyan revolution.
Qaddafi’s forces never made it into Zintan during the war, but pounded the town with Grad rockets from a distance of 5 km (3 miles). Some of Zintan’s sandstone and concrete houses, built on a large plateau, have entire walls missing from the attack.
“Qaddafi will never enter two places: Zintan and paradise,” a local saying proclaims.
The group of Zintan fighters who caught Qaddafi’s heir and their colleagues who flew from the capital to airlift him say they are bound by a 200-year-old tribal agreement between the Zintan tribe and his, the Qaddafa, which guarantees the protection of prisoners of war.
“It is an ancient agreement, but it still holds,” said Abu Ali.
Zintan people are known as travelers and people from the modest hilltop town can be found all around Libya.
Fighters from Zintan fought all over the country during the war and many have stayed away from home, they say, to protect oil fields and patrol the country’s borders.
Other groups around Libya have at times complained that Zintan fighters act like an occupying force but residents here say their motives are patriotic.
“We are like wolves,” said a Zintan fighter on Sunday. “We roam and protect our country.”
Luis Moreno Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court which has issued an arrest warrant for Seif al-Islam on charges of crimes against humanity, is expected to visit Zintan next week.
But with the Tripoli-based interim government having to accept that the proud Zintan fighters can keep their prisoner of war until further arrangements are made, Seif al-Islam may not be leaving the arid, mountain town any time soon.