Libya conflict: Frontline of fiction?

Saif al-Islam gestures to troops loyal to his father in Tripoli in the early hours of Tuesday 23 August
Image caption Saif al-Islam was described as jubilant and full of energy when he appeared

It was not the first time we had seen such images of Col Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam - he stood on a pick-up truck outside his father's Tripoli compound early on Tuesday, pumping the air with his fist and smiling broadly.

But these pictures were unusual because, on Sunday, Libya's rebels reported they had arrested the Libyan leader's presumed successor.

Whether he was captured, and then escaped, or whether his arrest was nothing more than a fiction is not yet known.

But the late-night images risk denting the rebels' reliability and damaging the credibility of the International Criminal Court (ICC). They prove, if anyone had doubted otherwise, that this is very much a media war.

The ICC - which has issued a warrant for Saif al-Islam's arrest on charges of crimes against humanity - gave credence to the reports by confirming that they had been told of his capture.

Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was even reported as saying that he was in discussions with the rebels about securing Saif al-Islam's transfer to The Hague.

'Perception war'

The UK's International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, blamed the confusion over the apparent arrest on the "fog of warfare".

But for some analysts, the surprise appearance was just the latest tactic of a battle fought over the airwaves as much as on the streets of Tripoli.

Image caption Rebel supporters in Benghazi have been eagerly monitoring events in Tripoli via television

"It's a perception war and an information war," the London Evening Standard's defence correspondent, Robert Fox, told the BBC.

"The tide of rumour is going against [the rebels] at the moment. Nobody can tell us exactly where it stands. The Gaddafi boys have been very intelligent in not producing the old man."

It is significant that Saif al-Islam's aides went straight to the Rixos Hotel to wake international journalists in the middle of the night to prove that he was free.

Outside the hotel and seemingly fizzing with adrenalin, Saif al-Islam told reporters he was there to "refute the lies". Then, after giving brief interviews, he led them to his father's Bab al-Aziziya compound, where their TV cameras captured him as supporters cheered.

The 39 year old himself sees this as an information war.

"The West has high-tech technology which disrupted telecommunications systems and sent messages to the people," he was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency. "This is a technological and media war to cause chaos and terror in Libya."

Rebel shock

The dramatic twist in the tide of events threatens to damage the ICC's standing.

On Tuesday, a spokesman sought to emphasise the limits of the tribunal's role, underlining that it is dependent on Libya for gaining custody of those for whom international arrest warrants have been issued.

"The mandate of the international forces does not include the question of enforcement of the judicial decision by the ICC," Fadi El Abdallah told the BBC.

"We are only requesting the authority where the suspects are to apprehend them and surrender them - if they are in Libya it should be the Libyan state."

In Tripoli, the images were greeted with shock by faithful rebels. In Benghazi, correspondents said the mood shifted rapidly from one of jubilation to anxiety.

The rebels could not believe he had been captured, and then managed to escape.

"It is an attempt to defame the image of the National [Transitional] Council and I hope they fail in their televised campaign," one fighter, Ahmed Mekbassy, was reported as telling the Reuters news agency from the eastern city.

The NTC leadership has yet to comment on what happened to Saif al-Islam.

As the pictures of Col Gaddafi's son, arms outstretched as green flags flutter in the darkness behind him, play and replay across the television news networks, the actual truth of his detention, or otherwise, remains unknown.