The Libyan rebels' heady claims to have seized most of the capital of Tripoli and to have detained three of Moammar Gadhafi's sons were cast in doubt Tuesday when Gadhafi's son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam pulled up in a limousine at Tripoli's Rixos hotel. He proceeded to take foreign journalists staying there on a tour of neighborhoods he claimed were still under the control of the Gadhafi regime.
An apparently embarrassed National Transition Council--the Libyan opposition body--offered a confusing explanation Tuesday for its claim on Sunday to have detained Seif as well as two other Gadhafi brothers, blaming the misinformation on a "fifth column" of traitors posing as rebels.
"There was misinformation intentionally put out by fifth column people to discredit the NTC and they were successful," NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said Tuesday, Reuters reported. "They should not have come out with an announcement until they had seen him in handcuffs in front of them. They came out with it based on someone's misinformation and took it at face value."
Astonished foreign journalists including CNN's Matthew Chance posted photos to Twitter of Seif coming into the Rixos hotel. (You can see Seif's triumphal appearance in the video below.)
"We broke the backbone of the rebels," Seif boasted to reporters, according to the Washington Post. "We gave them a hard time. And so we are winning." He then proceeded to invite reporters "to accompany him 'to the hottest places in Tripoli,'" the Post report continued.
Western diplomats said that this was not the first time that rebel claims had been found to be exaggerated. But they suggested that in the "fog of war" such things are not entirely unexpected. They also expressed confidence in the accuracy of the judgment President Barack Obama offered Monday that the Gadhafi regime is coming to an end.
"The story is that these are the final days of the Gadhafi regime," a western diplomat told a Reuters' reporter in the eastern Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi Tuesday, Robert Birsel. "The NTC is still the authoritative body; this [Seif's appearance in Tripoli] doesn't change anything about that."
"The situation is still very fluid, there remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat," Obama cautioned in his remarks Monday from Martha's Vineyard. "But this much is clear: the Gadhafi regime is coming to an end and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people."
Nevertheless, the unraveling of the opposition's claim to have detained Gadhafi's one-time heir apparent left some international officials and journalists increasingly mistrustful of Libya's would-be democratic rulers.
The International Criminal Court had to admit Tuesday that its chief prosecutor's statement Monday that Seif could now face possible war crime charges in the Hague was based on news reports citing the NTC's claim to have Seif in custody. A spokesman for the court, Fadi El Abdallah, said Tuesday "that the rebels never officially confirmed Seif's arrest," the Associated Press reported Tuesday.