Britain Debriefs Former Libyan Foreign Minister

The scene is a safe house somewhere in Britain. And the players are British intelligence agents, diplomats, and one lean, white-haired Libyan man named Moussa Koussa. He's Libya's foreign minister, a senior member of Moammar Gadhafi's embattled regime. Koussa flew to England Wednesday, and the British say he's resigned his post and defected — and that they've spent the day debriefing him.

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The scene is a safe house somewhere in Britain and the players are British intelligence agents, diplomats and one lean, white-haired Libyan man named Moussa Koussa. He is, or was, Libya's foreign minister. A senior member of Moammar Gadhafi's embattled regime. Koussa flew to England yesterday and the British say he has resigned his post and defected and that they've spent the day debriefing him.

NPR's Philip Reeves has the latest from London.

PHILIP REEVES: Koussa's unexpected arrival in Britain is a major propaganda coup for Gadhafi's opponents. For weeks, coalition leaders have urged the Colonel's inner circle to abandon him. British Prime Minister David Cameron says Koussa's now done that, dealing a serious blow to Gadhafi's authority.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Prime Minister, Great Britain): It does show a huge amount of decay, distrust and breakdown at the heart of the Gadhafi regime. This was his foreign minister. This was a key member of his government.

REEVES: Details of Koussa's mysterious flight to Britain are beginning to emerge. He flew in yesterday from Tunisia. British officials say he came by private jet of his own free will. They haven't said who arranged it, although they say they did have some idea beforehand of Koussa's intentions.

Koussa touched down, declared he'd resigned and began talking to British officials voluntarily, they say. Koussa's a former head of Libyan intelligence. He's played a leading role in Gadhafi's regime for years. The British know him well, says Foreign Secretary William Hague. Hague's been talking to him since the start of the military operation against Libya.

Mr. WILLIAM HAGUE (Foreign Secretary, Great Britain): He has been my channel of communication for the regime in recent weeks and I have spoken to him several times on the telephone, most recently last Friday. His resignation shows that Gadhafi's regime, which has already seen significant defections to the opposition, is fragmented, under pressure and crumbling from within.

REEVES: In Tripoli, Gadhafi's government sought to shrug off the loss of a big player. Spokesman Musa Ibrahim admitted the regime was surprised to learn Koussa had gone to Britain. He only had permission to go to Tunisia to be treated for diabetes and high blood pressure. But, said Ibrahim, plenty of Libyan's could fill Koussa's shoes.

Mr. MUSA IBRAHIM (Gadhafi Spokesman): He's a man who truly and seems maybe genuinely feels tired and exhausted. He's an old man. He has serious health problems. His heart, his body could not take the pressure. You know, we understand that.

REEVES: The British say they're not offering Koussa immunity from prosecution. Some allege he played a role in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland. Scottish prosecutors have already asked to interview Koussa. Right now, though, British officials are more interested in the present. They want to know what impact Koussa's defection will have on Gadhafi.

Britain's armed forces chief, General David Richards, sounded optimistic when accosted by reporters outside his London headquarters.

Unidentified Man: Is it helpful that the Libyan foreign minister would possibly now defected?

General DAVID RICHARDS (British Armed Forces): I think that's a positive thing.

Unidentified Man: And will it be helpful to (unintelligible)?

Gen. RICHARDS: I think so, psychologically. It's all about psychology. It can't be helpful to Gadhafi.

REEVES: Koussa's not the first top official to abandon Gadhafi. In the early days of the civil war, Gadhafi's interior and justice ministers defected to the rebels. But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, says Koussa's the biggest fish so far.

Mr. OLIVER MILES (Former British Ambassador to Libya): He's not absolutely in the inner circle, I don't think. I think the inner circle is mainly restricted to Gadhafi's own family. But short of that, he's as powerful as they come.

REEVES: Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, says defections like Koussa's matter a lot.

Mr. JACK STRAW (Former British Foreign Secretary): There is unlikely to be any kind of military quick victory for either side. It does depend on which side psychologically collapses. Now, I don't think the rebels are going to and nobody wants them to. So it's about boring away inside the kind of brain and heart of the regime.

REEVES: Gadhafi's opponents hope more of his inner circle will now follow Koussa's example and jump on a plane.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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