In an extraordinary turnabout in the Tripoli standoff between West-backed Libyan rebels and Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam turned up with cheering crowds at the Rixos hotel early Tuesday, Aug. 23, and told foreign reporters he was never captured as widely reported. "We are winning,"he said.
His detention was not only reported by the rebels but "confirmed" embarrassingly by the International Criminal Court's prosecutors.
"The rebels fell into a trap," said Saif, asserting his father was in Tripoli running the fight against the rebels who have suffered heavy losses. "We control the capital," he said. "The people are with us, but communications are jammed." He spoke of attempts to sow chaos in Libya by controlling the electronic media, then took reporters on a tour of the capital to show them that "the situation is excellent."
debkafile adds that Qaddafi forces Monday night freed his brother Muhammad Qaddafi from rebel hands.
Saif al-Islam's appearance and his boisterous welcome by Tripoli crowds holding his father's picture aloft accountd for President Barack Obama's caution earlier Monday over confirming the widespread claims by NATO and the UK that Qaddafi was finished.
Monday night, debkafile reported: For the first time in the six-month war against Muammar Qaddafi's regime, NATO troops, despite denials, are taking part in the fighting on the ground as British and French "military advisers" – members of special operations units – help Libyan rebels fight for control of the Libyan capital Tripoli. This contest is evolving into a war of intelligence, as debkafile's military sources disclose. Qaddafi's counter-offensive aims at separating the Western troops from the small numbers of rebels – no more than 2,500-3,000.
Sources close to that contest estimate that if Qaddafi's roughly 5,000 loyal troops in the capital can achieve this goal, they will have enhanced their chances of reversing the tide of battle.
Those sources refute some media claims that the rebels already control 80-90 percent of Tripoli and say they were left with no more than one third of the city by Monday night, Aug. 22. In the day and a night since they entered the capital, Qaddafi's 12th Division has recovered some of the territory the rebels captured in their first push.
US President Barack Obama, in his statement Monday night, accurately diagnosed the Libyan situation as "fluid and uncertain" – although, he said, "Qaddafi's regime is coming to an end and passing into the hands of the people." Fierce fighting is still going on, he said, and there are "reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting." The president called on Qaddafi "to stop the bloodshed by calling on them to lay down arms for the sake of Libya" and "relinquish power without delay."
Obama's words somewhat cooled the exuberant assertions by NATO and some of its members that Qaddafi is no longer a force to be reckoned with and the war all but over.
His words also aimed at moderating expectations of its successor. He urged the formation of a "peaceful, inclusive and just coalition" of forces and warned that "justice would come from conciliation, not violence."
Read debkafile's step by step accounts below on the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli from Sunday night, Aug. 21.
Heavy fighting was raging Monday, Aug. 22, around Muammar Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli less than a day after Libyan rebels captured most of the capital unopposed and Muammar Qaddafi's regime in the capital was written off. His son Khamis led a tank force fighting from positions taken up at the compound and Tripoli port, signaling that the forces loyal to the Libyan ruler and his family were ready to fight for their survival and Qaddafi was not ready to relinquish power as demanded by US President Barack Obama Sunday night.
For the last two weeks, Khamis, the most talented general of Qaddafi's sons, avoided using tanks outside Tripoli for fear of losing them in NATO air strikes, debkafile's military sources report. The rebels heading into Tripoli from Zawiya Sunday were unopposed by obstacles.
However, Monday, when defeat looked the regime and family in the face, Khamis switched tactics. He reckoned that the tanks would be safe from NATO attack among the civilians crowding the city streets.
Another Qaddafi son, Saif al-Islam, was apparently detained by the rebels who are negotiating his handover for trial to the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. However, another son, Al-Mu'tasim Billah al-Qaddafi, may be expected to join Khamis on the battlefield quite soon.
Al-Mu'tasim, who is also highly regarded as an operational commander, heads Libya's Special Forces Brigades and the regime's intelligence arm. His whereabouts like those of his father are unknown. The Libyan has not been seen lately although Sunday, he sent audio messages to state television calling on all Libyans to rally and save Tripoli from the same fate as Baghdad.
Saif al Islam, a non-military figure, was never his father's choice for successor. His fluent English language skills and the knowledge of Western ways and media he acquired during years spent in Britain made him a useful spokesman for the regime in the six months of the war.
Saif took advantage of the limelight to pose as Qaddafi's Number Two.
However, Khamis and Al-Mu'tasim ran the all-important military side of Qaddafi's campaign against the NATO-backed rebellion. More than once, they saved the family from near- disaster – notably against concerted US- British-French Odyssey Dawn air operation against the ruler's power centers in Tripoli on March 19.
According to some of debkafile's sources, the embattled ruler may have decided to throw Saif al-Islam to the wolves to distract NATO commanders' notice from the two sons leading his fight for survival on the battlefield.
Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron was concerned to move on towards establishing a new government in Tripoli when he said, "The regime is falling apart" and "Our task now is to do all we can to protect the will of the Libyan people."
Qaddafi and his sons are now fighting to demonstrate that although the rebels have seized most of Tripoli, there is still no power vacuum waiting for them to step into.
Through Monday, more rebel columns headed towards Tripoli in pick-up trucks with heavy machine-guns mounted at the back. Plenty more fighting and bloodshed is still ahead of Libya before the crisis is over
After midnight Sunday, Aug. 21, debkafile reported: The Qaddafi regime falls in Tripoli
Muammar Qaddafi's regime fell in Tripoli just before midnight Sunday, Aug. 22. The rebels advanced in three columns into the heart of the capital after being dropped by NATO ships and helicopters on the Tripoli coast. Except for pockets, government forces did not resist the rebel advance, which stopped short of the Qaddafi compound of Bab al-Aziziyah.
After one of his sons Saif al Islam was reported to be in rebel hands and another, Mohammad, said to have surrendered, Qaddafi's voice was heard over state television calling on Libyans to rise up and save Tripoli from "the traitors." Tripoli is now like Baghdad, he said. For now, his whereabouts are unknown.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said 1,200 people had been killed in the 12 hours of the rebel push towards the capital. As he spoke, Libyan rebels, backed by NATO, seized control of the capital. After holding out for six months, the Qaddafi regime was to all intents and purposes at an end.
Still to be answered are seven questions raised here by debkafile's analysts:
1. Where are the six government special divisions whose loyalty to the Libyan ruler and his sons was never in question? None of the 15,000 trained government troops were to be seen in the way of the rebel advance into the capital. The mystery might be accounted for by several scenarios: Either these units broke up and scattered or Qaddafi pulled them back into southern Libya to secure the main oil fields. Or, perhaps, government units are staying out of sight and biding their time in order to turn the tables on the triumphant rebels and trap them in a siege. The Libyan army has used this stratagem before.
2. How did the ragtag, squabbling Libyan rebels who were unable to build a coherent army in six months suddenly turn up in Tripoli Sunday looking like an organized military force and using weapons for which they were not known to have received proper training? Did they secretly harbor a non-Libyan hard core of professional soldiers?
3. What happened to the tribes loyal to Qaddafi? Up until last week, they numbered the three largest tribal grouping in the country. Did they suddenly melt away without warning?
4. Does Qaddafi's fall in Tripoli mean he has lost control of all other parts of Libya, including his strongholds in the center and south?
5. Can the rebels and NATO claim an undisputed victory? Or might not the Libyan ruler, forewarned of NATO's plan to topple him by Sept. 1, have decided to dodge a crushing blow, cede Tripoli and retire to the Libyan Desert from which to wage war on the new rulers?
6. Can the heavily divided rebels, consisting of at least three militias, put their differences aside and establish a reasonable administration for governing a city of many millions? Their performance in running the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is not reassuring.
7. Debkafile's military and counter-terror sources suggest a hidden meaning in Qaddafi's comment that Tripoli is now like Baghdad. Is he preparing to collect his family, escape Tripoli and launch a long and bloody guerrilla war like the one Saddam Hussein's followers waged after the US invasion of 2003 which opened the door of Iraq to al Qaeda?
If that is Qaddafi's plan, the rebels and their NATO backers, especially Britain and France, will soon find their victory wiped out by violence similar to – or worse than – the troubles the US-led forces have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.