Libyan Foreign Minister Resigns Post, Flies To U.K.

A major blow to Moammar Gadhafi Wednesday: his foreign minister has resigned his post and flown to London. The British Foreign Office, in a statement, says Moussa Koussa traveled to Britain "under his own free will." Koussa is a top regime insider, and his departure is sure to embarrass leader Moammar Gadhafi. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A major blow to Moammar Gadhafi this evening. His foreign minister has quit and flown to London. The British foreign office, in a statement, says Moussa Koussa traveled to Britain under his own free will. Koussa is a top regime insider and his departure is sure to embarrass Gadhafi, at the very least.

Joining us now is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, what more is the British government saying about Moussa Koussa?

TOM GJELTEN: They're saying that Mr. Koussa arrived at Farnborough Airport in London today, flying from Tunisia. Now, Melissa, that's not a commercial airport. It means he arrived by private plane.

The Foreign Office says that Koussa announced that he is resigning his post as foreign minister and then that he went into discussions with the British government. British officials aren't saying a whole lot more than that, only that he is, quote, no longer willing to represent the Gadhafi regime internationally.

BLOCK: And does that amount, then, Tom, to a defection? Has he, in fact, gone over to the rebels' side?

GJELTEN: That would be the next step. They are not saying that. There is some speculation that that will come, that he would actually ask for asylum and support, even, the transitional government. But that has not happened yet.

BLOCK: Now, Moussa Koussa, for a long time, has been a major player in the Gadhafi regime.

GJELTEN: That's right, Melissa. In fact, we heard from him most recently right before the airstrikes began. He was the one who came out and announced that the government was - would institute a ceasefire and, in fact, would pull back its troops. When that didn't happen, there was some thinking that he was already then sort of out of the loop.

But the truth is that over the last 20 years, there are very few people who have been more important to Gadhafi than Moussa Koussa. He was his intelligence chief, both during the period when the Libyan regime was involved in terrorist acts and subsequently when the Libyans, when Gadhafi moved closer to the West, and there was - he was in charge of cooperation, collaboration on counterterrorism issues with other governments, including the United States. So a very important figure.

BLOCK: And, Tom, any sense of what this will mean for Gadhafi and what the British and U.S. governments will be trying to learn from Koussa? Is he, in fact, subject to prosecution now?

GJELTEN: Well, that's an interesting question, Melissa. I think there have been - obviously, there have been no indictments yet issued or announcements made about any possible criminal prosecution. For that to happen, it would be necessary to show that he had some command responsibility for actions that were taken that were, in fact, illegal under international law. It would be a very complicated process.

My guess is that he is not going to be prosecuted for that, at least for anything that's happened recently. Now, as far as what this means, you know, the U.S. and British and other foreign governments are going to be very anxious to find out, how wide is the disaffection within the Libyan regime, how much instability there is. And he should have a lot of information about what's going on.

BLOCK: And, Tom, had there been inklings of this brewing within the diplomatic community?

GJELTEN: Yeah, certainly within the Libyan opposition movement there were a lot of rumors about this. What happened was that over the weekend he went to Tunisia. It was announced it was a private visit. It was said he was there for medical reasons.

And then when word came that he was going to London, the Libyan government put out a statement that he was on a diplomatic mission. But now we know that there is no - there was rumors that he was going to be negotiating a way out for Gadhafi - but now we know he has, in fact, left the government.

BLOCK: Okay, Tom, thanks so much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten on the news that Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa has quit and flown to the U.K.

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