The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Sunday he has "substantial evidence" that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, now on the run, had helped hire mercenaries to attack Libyan civilians protesting against his father's rule.
Saif al-Islam may be heading for Niger, which risks upsetting its own pro-Gaddafi Tuareg nomads if it hands him over to the ICC in line with its treaty obligations, as it has promised to do if the wanted man shows up on its territory.
"We have a witness who explained how Saif was involved with the planning of the attacks against civilians, including in particular the hiring of core mercenaries from different countries and the transport of them, and also the financial aspects he was covering," ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters during a visit to Beijing.
Saif al-Islam, 39, is desperately seeking to avoid the fate of his father, Muammar Gaddafi, who was beaten, abused and shot after forces of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) captured him on Oct. 20 after the fall of his home town Sirte.
The NTC may try Saif al-Islam itself, but the fugitive Libyan has been in indirect contact with the ICC over a possible surrender, though he may also harbour hopes that mercenaries can spirit him to a friendly African country.
Neighbouring Niger has vowed to honour its ICC commitments, but knows that handing over Saif al-Islam could spark unrest in Saharan areas where his father, feted by many desert-dwellers as a hero, nurtured past Tuareg revolts against the capital.
A senior member of Niger's coalition government told Reuters Saif al-Islam's whereabouts remained unknown, but that surrender was his best option. Niger would cooperate with the ICC to ensure he was handed over as safely as possible.
"It's perhaps best that he goes of his own accord rather than to be hunted and caught by Libyans who will end up lynching him as they did to his father," said Habi Mahamadou Salissou, vice-president of the Nigerien Democratic Movement.
NIGER DISCOUNTS RISK OF REVOLT
The former foreign minister said he was convinced that any transfer of Saif al-Islam would not spark a new Tuareg revolt in the West African nation, pointing to recent government efforts to integrate Tuareg officials into positions of power.
But he acknowledged the imprint the former Libyan leader had left on Niger. "Gaddafi backed virtually all the rebellions in Niger and then managed to find a solution to them."
Moreno-Campo said the ICC had witnesses to testify against Saif al-Islam, whom he said he had met a few years ago -- when Saif had backed ICC efforts to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over alleged genocide and other crimes in Darfur.
"So we have substantial evidence to prove the case, but of course Saif is still (presumed) innocent, and (will) have to go to court and the judge will decide," he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said he would brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday about the court's work in Libya.
The Hague-based court has warned Saif al-Islam that it could order a mid-air interception if he tried to flee by plane from his unidentified Sahara desert hideout for a safe haven.
"We received through an informal intermediary some questions from Saif apparently about the legal system -- what happens to him if he appears before the judges, can he be sent to Libya, what happens if he's convicted, what happens if he's acquitted," said Moreno-Ocampo.
"We are not in any negotiations with Saif," he said, adding that the ICC would not later force him to return to Libya provided another country is willing to receive him after he is either acquitted or is convicted and has served his sentence.
The NTC's interim information minister, Mahmoud Shammam, said the council had not discussed the indirect contacts between Saif al-Islam and the ICC. "We don't have a formal position on the reports," he told Reuters in Tripoli.
CHANGE OF IMAGE
Before a popular uprising imperiled his father's grip on Libya, Saif al-Islam had cast himself as an enlightened supporter of reform at home and across the Arab world. But then he swore to crush opponents of his father's 42-year rule.
Asked about Saif al-Islam's metamorphosis, Moreno-Ocampo said: "After all these years, nothing surprises me."
Niger has not commented on statements by local northern leaders that Saif al-Islam was probably on its side of the mountains straddling its porous border with Libya, Algeria and Mali.
An official for the remote northern Agadez region, through which another fugitive Gaddafi son, Saadi, has passed, said on Saturday it had hosted security talks with U.S. officials.
The official, who requested anonymity, spoke of escape plans by Saif al-Islam and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, both wanted by the ICC for war crimes.
"Senussi is being extricated from Mali toward a country that is a non-signatory to the (ICC) convention. I am certain that they will both (Senussi and Saif al-Islam) be extricated by plane, one from Mali, the other from Niger," he said.
A member of parliament from northern Mali, Ibrahim Assaleh Ag Mohamed, denied Senussi was in his country and said neither he nor Saif al-Islam would be accepted if they tried to enter.
Niger, like Mali, has signed the ICC's statute, but handing over Saif al-Islam would annoy northerners who feel remote from the capital Niamey and have long espoused Gaddafi's vision of a cross-border Saharan people.
"We are ready to hide him wherever needed," Mouddour Barka, a resident of Agadez town, told Reuters, adding that if Niger authorities handed him over: "We are ready to go out onto the streets and they will have us to deal with".
Gaddafi, a self-styled African "king of kings" befriended desert tribes in Niger, Mali and other former French colonies in West Africa, and lavished funds on several African nations.
The ICC accuses Saif al-Islam of hiring mercenaries to carry out a plan, worked out with his father and Senussi, to kill unarmed protesters inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere.
Algeria, which took in Saif al-Islam's mother, sister, brother Hannibal and half-brother Mohammed, is not a signatory to the treaty that set up the ICC. Nor is Sudan or Zimbabwe.