Tripoli, Libya, Oct 18: The celebratory gunfire was deafening as reports spread that Moammar Gadhafi's son Muatassim had been captured. The problem is, Libyan officials say, it wasn't true.
Libya's new rulers have found it hard to control the flow of information in a country that was run by one man for more than four decades. Fighters often tell a different story than officials in Tripoli, reflecting the uprising's lack of organization. Propaganda also has been used by both sides in the brutal,eight-month conflict.
“Spreading rumors is a legacy that we've inherited from the previous regime,” said Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman for the governing National Transitional Council who denied the Muatassim arrest report on Monday. He said authorities were trying to improve the situation but faced difficulties with the line of communication in the field.
The claims that Muatassim Gadhafi—who was Libya's national security adviser under his father's regime—had been captured began circulating last week as revolutionary forces closed in on armed supporters of the fugitive leader in his hometown of Sirte, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Libyan officials have said they believe the son and other high-level former regime figures are hiding in Sirte and that is the reason for the fierce resistance more than two months after Tripoli fell.
One commander told The Associated Press that Muatassim Gadhafi had been captured the evening of Oct 12 in a storage area for flour and was being flown to the eastern city of Benghazi for interrogation. The commander, who refused to be identified, said the detainee had been shot in the left leg and his head was shaved.
Guards at the facility where he was supposed to be taken also said he was inside, but none had actually seen the high-profile prisoner and it appeared they were reacting to the rumors. An official at the facility later said Muatassim had been captured but was still in Sirte. The AP declined to use the conflicting reports because officials with the governing National Transitional Council could not confirm them.
On Monday, the NTC's military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said Libya's interim leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, has denied that Muatassim had been captured. El-Gallal expressed regret because several people had been reported killed by the celebratory gunfire that broke out in Tripoli and Benghazi.
International experts warned the inability to provide reliable information could deal a major blow to the public trust in Libya's new leadership.
“In this case, it sounds like the folks in charge in Libya may not know how much credibility they are losing with every false report,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the nonprofit journalism watchdog Poynter Institute.
“It must be really hard for a society trying to transition to a more open form of leadership. Information becomes a weapon rather than a tool in many cases,” she added.
Rebels have made many similar claims as they battled for control of the oil-rich North African nation.
As the former rebels moved into Tripoli two months ago, there came an announcement that Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam had been seized. But then Gadhafi's longtime heir apparent appeared in front of the hotel where foreign journalists had to stay in the Libyan capital with a crowd of cheering supporters.
The misleading news was widely considered a turning point that cost the rebels credibility on the international stage, but it also may have contributed to the fall of Tripoli.
While revolutionary leaders scrambled to do damage control by saying they had never confirmed the reports, officials said the announcement of Seif al-Islam's arrested prompted some 30 officers assigned to guard Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound to lay down their arms. That raised questions about whether the rebels may have intentionally put out the false report as psychological warfare.
Mahmoud Jibril, who has taken over as Libya's prime minister, insisted the arrest was never publicly confirmed but he was grateful nonetheless.
“Politically we won. Militarily we won. The final chapter, entering Bab al-Aziziya compound, was accomplished when a large number of officers surrendered,” he said at the time. Commanders now say they believe Seif al-Islam has been hiding in Bani Walid, one of the last remaining bastions of support for the ousted leader.
Seif al-Islam, his father and Libya's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi were indicted this year for allegedly ordering, planning and participating in illegal attacks on civilians in the early days of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
The difficulties gathering information are not limited to arrest reports. Western diplomats privately complain that they can't get reliable information as they try to report back to capitals on weapons proliferation and other reports.
Libyan officials also have frequently claimed to have discovered mass graves containing victims of Gadhafi's regime before even beginning to exhume the purported remains. Human rights groups have expressed concern that the exposure could contaminate the sites.
Libya's new rulers have also claimed for weeks that they are just days away from declaring liberation as they fought to capture two of the last remaining Gadhafi strongholds—Sirte and Bani Walid—more than two months after Tripoli fell.
Underscoring the distrust and confusion among the ranks, one commander said he still believed Muatassim Gadhafi had been captured and was being held secretly in Benghazi.
“They don't want to let the public know because they fear people will try to break into the compound where he is being held and kill him,” Sabhilalla Haroun said.