TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s new military commanders are using informants from among Muammar Gaddafi’s entourage to track down the fugitive former leader, while tightening the noose around his last strongholds to force them to surrender.
Hisham Buhagiar, a senior official in the military body behind Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council, is coordinating efforts to hunt Gaddafi, chased out of his Tripoli compound after a six-month uprising.
Buhagiar said he believed Gaddafi was either in the Bani Walid area, southeast of Tripoli, or in his hometown of Sirte, 450 km (265 miles) east of Tripoli.
“There are some groups who are looking for him and also trying to listen to his calls. Of course he doesn’t use the phone, but we know the people around him who use the phones,” he said.
“Usually we trace a lot of people who are not in the first inner circle with him, but the second or third circle. We’re talking to them,” said Buhagiar.
“Some of them know that the regime is falling, and they want to make sure they don’t get hurt ... They want to strike deals. That’s why we’ve created the white list. Everyone who helps us is on the white list.”
Buhagiar belonged to an exiled opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He underwent special forces training in Sudan and Iraq in the 1980s.
He later gained a masters degree in business at the University of Seattle in the United States and then returned to Libya to set up a textile business.
After the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Buhagiar joined Libya’s February uprising, and commanded the rebel fighters who descended on Tripoli from the country’s western mountains.
Buhagiar now commands groups of well-trained personnel tasked with hunting Gaddafi. He showed Reuters intelligence reports detailing telephone numbers, locations and Google maps of target locations.
They have searched 10 locations so far, some outside the Libyan capital.
He said Gaddafi, originally a tribal man who acquired extravagant tastes over the years, could last in hiding longer than Iraq’s Saddam Hussein did before U.S. troops found him months after he was toppled in April 2003.
Saddam had been hiding in a hole in the ground near his hometown of Tikrit.
“Yes, Gaddafi could live in a hole. He’s proud of being the guy who lives in a tent.
“He’s an old revolutionary Stalin type, who will try to survive anywhere he can,” Buhagiar said.
“I wouldn’t think it will be too long before we find him. We are in the last chapter. After losing Tripoli he will not have any money, and that has been what has driven him along .... his supply lines are definitely cut.”
Buhagiar identified four areas still under Gaddafi’s control — Tarhouna, Sirte and Bani Walid in the north, and Sabha in the south — which he said Libya’s new leaders hope to take through negotiation rather than military assault.
“We believe that the revolutionaries in these areas are already in good numbers,” he added.
Sirte is identified by many analysts as possibly the biggest challenge to anti-Gaddafi fighters trying to consolidate their grip on the country, but Buhagiar said some of the tribes there realised that Gaddafi was finished.
“People say Sirte is the most difficult place (to capture) because it is the birthplace of Gaddafi, but I don’t believe so. I believe Sirte is 50-50, between the people who are really involved with him ... and the other 50 percent who know that Gaddafi is not good for the country and he should go,” he said.
The biggest challenge is gaining the trust of people in pro-Gaddafi areas, he said.
“It’s not so easy to convince them because they have been under the influence of Gaddafi’s media for 40 years, and now we’re trying to explain to them, that OK, we are not terrorists, we are good for the country,” he said.
Another challenge for Buhagiar is to guard against an insurgency and sabotage by Gaddafi loyalists. There are fears they could soon orchestrate the kind of violence that rocked Iraq for years after Saddam’s fall.
“It’s possible. But we’re also preparing ourselves. We are creating units that we know for sure cannot be infiltrated. And we’re also trying to build our intelligence office. That’s something we never used to do as it was always in the hands of Gaddafi or his government,” Buhagiar said.
Pointing to one recent success, he produced a sheaf of identity cards of people he said were mercenaries of African origin recruited by a Libyan since Gaddafi’s downfall and employed to undermine Libya’s new leadership.
He attributed the success of the Libyan uprising to good organisation and intelligence gathering, a skill he urged Syrians currently trying to depose their own authoritarian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, to follow.
“They have to organise themselves very well. Intelligence is very important. The more intelligence you have, the way you gather it, the accuracy, that’s what helps you take the decisions. You can beat them if you have good information.”
Editing by Giles Elgood