NAMEY, Niger — Saadi Gaddafi, the son of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, is being held in Niger, the country's justice minister confirmed to GlobalPost.
Late Tuesday night Saadi, the fugitive strongman’s football-loving playboy son, was flown by Niger’s military from the desert city of Agadez to the capital Niamey, 600 miles away.
Saadi, 38, arrived in Agadez earlier in the week in a convoy of 4x4s, the first Gaddafi family member to flee to Niger and just days after his mother and other siblings escaped to Algeria.
Saadi left behind in Tripoli a plush seaside mansion with a white Lamborghini in the garage and a gold-plated toothbrush in the bathroom, according to reports from the city. In Niamey he is under house arrest and is forbidden to make phone calls, receive visitors or move freely.
“Like the others, Saadi is a humanitarian case and they have to respect this status, [that means] no political activities,” Marou Amadou, Niger’s justice minister and government spokesman, told GlobalPost.
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Amadou denied reports that Saadi and three top Libyan generals — including the head of the air force and two regional commanders — had requested political asylum in Niger and laughed at claims that Saadi made in a phone call to CNN this week that he was visiting Niger to check on the conditions of his tribesmen.
Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and former spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi are wanted by the International Criminal Court and have Interpol arrest warrants issued against them. The government in Niamey has assured diplomats that if any of the three were to come to Niger they would be arrested.
There is intense speculation about where Muammar Gaddafi is and virtually everyone here says he must still be in Libya.
Saadi — like other Gaddafi family members — is subject to a United Nations travel ban but can be accepted by foreign governments on humanitarian grounds, which is the justification given by Algeria for accepting Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two of his sons last month.
“The important thing [for Niger] is to face up to our international humanitarian and legal obligations,” Amadou said. “We hope the [Libyan] war will end soon, that peace will be restored and democracy established.”
Amadou said there had not yet been any extradition request for Saadi from the National Transitional Council in Tripoli but Libya’s ambassador in Niamey told GlobalPost, the request would likely be made soon.
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“My new government will [make a] request for those who are wanted … and [Niger] will transfer them,” said Suleiman Ahmed Mohamed Moussa.
The reports last week of a convoy of 200 vehicles fleeing from Libya to Niger appear to have been exaggerated by eyewitnesses. Instead three separate smallish convoys of SUVs have arrived carrying 32 high-ranking Libyan officials. There is no evidence that any hoards of gold or cash have been brought, and the only weapons found so far were personal sidearms that were handed over to the Nigerien military who have escorted the Libyans from the desert to Agadez and onto Niamey.
Of the 32 Libyan officials who have crossed into Niger, only nine have been accurately identified and put under house arrest, the others are under surveillance. More Gaddafi loyalists are expected in the coming days and weeks as the old regime crumbles away.
Those who have arrived have been disarmed but in a meeting with foreign diplomats Niger’s prime minister, Brigi Rafini, described as “laughable” the amount of weapons and supplies the Libyan convoys have carried.
It is thought that arms caches have been hidden somewhere in the desert and a search for them is said to be underway.
But not every Libyan who has fled to Niger is a Gaddafi loyalist, traveling in an armed convoy of expensive SUVs. Belaid Mohamed, 54, left Tripoli in late February, soon after the start of the war and now stays in Niamey. He came by bus, bringing almost nothing with him.
“At least there is peace here in Niger,” he said in an interview, “but the way I live now, even a dog would not live like this in Libya.” Mohamed stays in a downmarket neighborhood on the outskirts of Niamey with one other Libyan exile.
He said money is short and he receives no support from the governments of Niger or Libya, or from aid agencies. “I can’t understand why Niger gives asylum and takes care of these rich people, but what about us?” Mohamed asked.
“I don’t care if Gaddafi stays or goes, or if the NTC stays or goes. I just want the war to stop so I can work and provide for my family. I’m not interested in politics, I just want to survive,” he added.
On the wiltingly hot, sandy streets of Niamey ordinary Nigeriens share the same apolitical ambivalence expressed by Mohamed: They just want the Libyan war over and they don’t want the Gaddafi loyalists to bring problems.
Some are grateful to Gaddafi for his financial support over the years and others fearful of what he might bring if he and his supporters arrive here.
“He has done a lot for us so if Gaddafi wants to come and seek asylum he should be welcome, but he should also know that Niger is not powerful enough to protect him,” said Abdullahi Issaka, a shoe and clothes seller with a small roadside shop close to the customs checkpoint that marks the entrance to the city on the road from Agadez.
“The arrival of these Libyans will bring trouble,” contended Adamou Assoumane, a haulier who imports cotton and exports animal products. “They come with weapons and insecurity," he said. "To receive these people is not good, they are criminals."
Gaddafi’s scattered clan
Muammar Gaddafi. Whereabouts unknown, thought to be in Libya.
Safia Gaddafi, wife. Algeria.
Mohamed, son, 41. Algeria.
Saif al-Islam, son, 39. Believed to be in Libya.
Saadi, son, 38. Niger.
Hannibal, son, 36. Algeria.
Aisha, daughter, 35. Algeria.
Mutassim, son, 34. Whereabouts unknown.
Saif al-Arab, son, 29. Reported killed in Libya.
Khamis, son, 28. Reported killed in Libya.