President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office defended on Wednesday a Libyan rebel commander who once reportedly led a jihadi group with ties to Al Qaeda, insisting Libya’s revolution is not led by Islamists.
A senior official in the Elysee told AFP that Sarkozy’s senior own military aide had met Adbelhakim Belhadj, the rebel commander who led the assault on Moamer Kadhafi’s bunker complex, and had no concerns about his affiliations.
Previously, Belhadj was reportedly “emir” of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — an Islamist guerrilla movement once allied to the Al Qaeda network — and he was arrested in Malaysia in 2004 on suspicion of extremist activity.
After his arrest he was said to have been interrogated by the US Central Intelligence Agency before being sent back to be jailed in Libya.
Belhadj renounced violence while a prisoner of Moamer Kadhafi’s government and was released in March 2010. This year he joined the revolution against the regime and is now commander of the rebel fighters in control of Tripoli.
His return to the frontline has raised concerns in some quarters that the revolution against Kadhafi, which was warmly supported by France and several other Western countries, might include un-democratic forces.
But the Elysee official, speaking on condition on anonymity, insisted France has no concerns about Belhadj nor about the National Transitional Council, the rebel political body now recognised as Libya’s interim government.
“As it happens, the head of the president’s military staff met him very recently, and was able to form the personal opinion of him that does not correspond at all to the accusations against him,” he said.
The official did not say where the meeting took place, but last week Belhadj attended a conference of the Libya contact group in Doha, Qatar, and Sarkozy’s military head of staff General Benoit Puga could have met him there.
“There is a very important distinction between practising Muslims and Islamists who want to lead a jihad,” the Elysee source said, insisting that the CNT was neither infiltrated nor controlled by extremist elements.
“There may be cells but we are certain of one thing: They neither represent a threat nor a large slice of Libyan public. We are not worried,” he said.
“There are a lot of fantasies. There are religious people in the NTC, but that doesn’t make them Islamists.”
When the Libya revolt erupted in March, Kadhafi and his son Saif Al-Islam branded the rebels Al-Qaeda operatives, an allegation firmly denied by the NTC and its supporters, who have promised to form a broad-based government.
A rebel spokesman in Tripoli has denied that Belhadj has a jihadi agenda, insisting that shares the NTC’s “moderate” vision of a democratic Libya.
Like Al-Qaeda, the LIFG was formed by former Muslim volunteers who fought the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Its leadership split from that of Al-Qaeda, but its members have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.