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Libya: When Algeria reluctantly granted refuge to the Gaddafi family

By Farid Alilat
Posted on Friday, 26 November 2021 19:15

Muammar Gaddafi and his family in Tripoli in 1992 © Alain DENIZE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Almost 10 years ago, Saif al-Islam - Muammar Gaddafi's son, who recently announced that he will be running for president in Libya’s upcoming election - was arrested in southern Libya. At the same time, his family eventually found refuge in Algeria.

In August 2011, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his large family quickly fled Bab El Aziza’s presidential palace in Tripoli so that they wouldn’t fall into the rebels’ hands.

In the best-case scenario, they would be thrown into a dungeon. Worst case, they would be lynched at the public square. On 22 August 2011, the Libyan leader, who was facing an armed revolution, decided to leave the capital, but where could he take refuge? Which friendly country or foreign head of state would agree to grant him and his family asylum? Colonel Gaddafi then remembered his good friend Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Surely, he would be hospitable towards his family. After all, Bouteflika would simply be returning the favour as Gaddafi had allowed the Algerian president’s mother to stay in one of his villas, located next to the Libyan embassy in Algiers. Although Gaddafi decided to stay in Libya – he eventually headed towards Sirte – he wanted his family to be somewhere safe.

Even though Bouteflika refused to take his calls for a few weeks, Tripoli’s former master knew that he would eventually get through to him. The two men had known each other ever since Gaddafi came to power in 1996. Even though Bouteflika felt that the Guide was whimsical, unmanageable and unstable, he had a great deal of sympathy, even admiration, for him.

Humanitarian reasons

On 22 August, the Gaddafis fled Tripoli in several vehicles and headed towards the Algerian border. After a week of wandering through the vast Lybian desert, six armoured cars arrived at a border post on the night of 28 August. Onboard the convoy were Safia, Gaddafi’s second wife, Hannibal, Mohamed, Aisha and several children.

Nothing went as planned. The border guards first refused them entry and then awaited orders. Bouteflika, who was informed of their presence, then consulted his inner circle. Should he grant asylum to these unwelcome guests? What would be the political ramifications? What would the international community say?

After several hours of waiting, the Gaddafis were allowed to enter Algerian territory on 29 August at 8:45am. Bouteflika had made sure to inform then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon as well as Mahmoud Jibril, president of the executive council of the Libyan National Transitional Council (CNT), that the colonel’s family was being given refuge for humanitarian reasons.

As she was pregnant, Aisha was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Djanet, in the south-eastern part of the country, to give birth to a daughter. The rest of the family stayed at a high-security residence. They did not stay in this desert region for long.

After a few days, the whole family was transferred to the state residence of Club des Pins, located on the western coast of Algiers. There, again, the Gaddafis stayed in villas that were heavily protected, as only security service members were allowed to approach them.

The orders were clear: no talking to the media. This message was aimed primarily at Aisha, who was presumed to be her father’s political heir and known to have quite a temper. The father was strong-willed, his daughter equally so.

On 23 September, Aisha defied the ban by giving a telephone interview to a Syrian channel, during which she didn’t exactly mince her words. She called Mahmoud Djibril a traitor and when asked whether her father was a refugee somewhere in Libya, she replied that he was fighting on all fronts.

The Hannibal case

The Algerian government was appalled and felt betrayed – even trapped – by Aisha’s remarks. The head of Algerian diplomacy said her comments were unacceptable. She was told that she must either stay silent or be expelled. Far from Algiers, the situation in Libya had become chaotic. Hunted and surrounded, Gaddafi was killed on 20 October near Sirte.

The images of his lynching were shown around the world. This was the end for the guide who had reigned for almost 42 years. Inconsolable, Aisha refused to accept that the Gaddafi reign was over. 40 days after her father’s death, she flouted the ban a second time by giving another interview on the same channel.

READ MORE Gaddafi’s legacy

Once again, this trained lawyer criticised Djibril’s government and urged her compatriots to continue fighting. The Algerians decided that they could no longer tolerate this behaviour and so cut off her phone, which meant that she could not make any more media appearances.

Aisha had expressed her desire to go to South Africa, where her father had a fortune estimated at over $1bn in cash and diamonds…

Hannibal’s case was just as delicate to manage. In his villa at the Club des Pins, he frequently engaged in tomfoolery. His alcohol consumption and computer addiction were a problem. If allowed to continue in this way, he could also end up becoming uncontrollable. The Algerians deprived him of his two favourite pastimes. Hannibal was put on a diet and silenced.

Tripoli’s new leaders had no intention of letting the Gaddafi family enjoy their asylum in Algeria for long. Now that the colonel was out of the way, his family had to be held accountable before the courts. The multiple requests to repatriate them were rejected by the Algerians, who set two conditions. First, Safia, Gaddafi’s wife, Aisha as well as the two children, Hannibal and Mohamed, would only be handed over to a legitimate Libyan government that had been voted in and was recognised by the international community. Secondly, their extradition would only take place if the Libyans could present a solid and documented legal case.

In the meantime, the Algerian authorities were trying to find a host country for this family. Although Lebanon did not rule out offering them asylum, it was reluctant to take in Hannibal and his wife, Aline, of Lebanese origin.

Above all, Hezbollah and Amal, powerful Lebanese Shiite parties, remembered that the Shiite Imam Moussa Sadr had disappeared in Libya back in 1978. They had still not forgiven the Gaddafis for this. However, history caught up with Hannibal, as he resurfaced in 2015 after having been kidnapped in Lebanon. Today, he is still being imprisoned in that country, as the Lebanese justice system is convinced that he has information on the disappearance of Moussa Sadr, who was three years old at the time of the events.

Destination Oman

For his part, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who remained in Libya with his father, was arrested in southern Libya on 19 November 2011, a few weeks after Gaddafi’s death.

Aisha had expressed her desire to go to South Africa, where her father had a fortune estimated at over $1bn in cash and diamonds, but just like Lebanon, the African country was quickly ruled out.

Meanwhile, the Gaddafis’ stay at the Club des Pins dragged on, as their expatriation became more complicated. In October 2012, after more than 14 months in Algeria, some members of the former Libyan leader’s family discreetly flew to Oman.

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