Profile: Moussa Koussa

In a huge blow, Libya's long time foreign intelligence chief has become the most senior of Gaddafi's men to defect

It was not so long ago that Moussa Koussa, Libya's foreign minister, was being wheeled out to defend Muammar Gaddafi's regime to foreign journalists at Tripoli's luxurious Rixos hotel.

A small and tidy man, aged 64, he would appear – usually tieless in his pale grey suit – and read haltingly from a scripted statement.

His message then echoed word for word, idea for idea, that of all of the other loyalists in Gaddafi's regime. He blamed a coalition of al-Qaida and western colonial interests intent on dividing Libya to steal its oil. He accused the foreign media of being part of that plot.

Challenged on one such occasion by journalists, he angrily stormed out.

Now the country's long time foreign intelligence chief, who became its foreign minister in 2009, has become the most senior of Gaddafi's allies to defect, after fleeing through Tunisia.

From one of the regime's most loyal of the loyal, Koussa has become its most prominent defector, after the Foreign Office announced he was "no longer willing" to represent the dictator's regime.

What is clear is that his flight has caught many observers on both sides of the Atlantic on the hop. US observers had previously speculated that the American-educated former head of Libya's external security service – and a keen basketball fan – was too closely implicated in the previous wrongdoings of the regime to be a likely candidate as a defector.

The Libyan opposition certainly will regard him as very tainted goods, as well as proof that Gaddafi's regime may finally be fracturing and those who once saw their future with him now rushing to reinvent themselves.

For although credited with helping to negotiate Libya's rapprochement with the west, ending Libya's pariah status, in a deal which involved its renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, Koussa was head of his country's foreign intelligence service during a time of several terrorist outrages conducted overseas.

In 1980, he was expelled from his position as Libya's envoy in London for calling in a newspaper interview for the killing of dissidents and threatening to back the IRA if the United Kingdom didn't hand them over.

Then he told The Times: "The revolutionary committees have decided last night to kill two more people in the United Kingdom. I approve of this."

Libya later claimed he had been misquoted.

Opposition figures have also accused him of being behind the kidnap and murder of several prominent Libyan opposition figures living abroad, including Mansur Kikhia, a former UN ambassador who was abducted from Cairo in 1993 and disappeared.

He has also been accused by regime opponents – although it has never been proved – of being involved in the Lockerbie bombing as well as the downing of a French airliner over the Sahara in 1989.

Although a French judge originally asked Interpol to seek him for questioning, for the second incident his name was later dropped from the investigation.

He has never been charged with any offence and has denied all knowledge of any of the attacks.

His role changed, however, after the 11 September 2001, attacks, when Gaddafi offered the west intelligence on al-Qaida. Then it was Koussa who emerged from the shadows to meet with senior UK and US intelligence figures, paving the way for Gaddafi's rehabilitation.

More recently he had been at the centre of controversy again when he was accused of being one of the key players behind the scenes pushing for the Scottish courts to release the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

Guma El-Gamaty, an organiser in Britain for a leading Libyan opposition group, said Koussa's action would be "a big hit" that would weaken Gaddafi.

"He says he is resigning, that means he is defecting," El-Gamaty said.

"He has been Gaddafi's right-hand man for years, running intelligence, running the Lockerbie bomber negotiations, running many things."

El-Gamaty said he does not think Koussa is likely to remain in Britain but would likely end up in another country in an effort to avoid possible prosecution. He said that Koussa would not be welcomed into the opposition movement because of his prior actions on behalf of the Gaddafi government.

When it emerged that Koussa was on his way to the UK, the Libyan authorities initially claimed he was on a diplomatic mission for Gaddafi.

But within hours, the Foreign Office announced his real motive was to seek refuge.

While his departure from the regime will be welcomed, what Britain will do with its toxic guest is another question.


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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