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Sunday, July 11, 1999 Published at 20:18 GMT 21:18 UK

On the trail of Colonel Gaddafi

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi: remains elusive to the press

By Mike Thomson, reporter for BBC Radio 4's Today programme

Just when I had reached the point where even a "no" would have been good news the phone rang.

A voice tinged with pride told me to pack my bags. It belonged to a friendly professor of politics who I had recently met in a smart London restaurant.

I had enlisted his help after over-hearing that he had friends in high places in Tripoli. I had become desperate enough to approach total strangers in public places after many weeks of fruitless attempts to get a journalist's visa for Libya.

I had filled out endless forms and supplied enough personal information for them to write my biography, if not have me cloned.

But my professor had contacts and all I had to do now was follow instructions. This chiefly consisted of faxing my passport details to a Libyan man in Cardiff and he, I was told, would ring me back, some time later and tell me where and when I could collect my visa.

This sort of cloak and dagger arrangement was soon to become the norm.

Meeting my minder

I was met at Tripoli airport by a friendly young man in a blue check shirt who immediately grabbed my passport while I struggled on with my luggage, and ushered me through a sea of officials requesting me to change money, fill out more forms, open my bags or get back in the queue for a waiting, rather battered taxi outside.

This sped me at a petrifying pace to my hotel in Tripoli.

By the time I arrived I had already seen the ultimate objective of my visit, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, many times. His face peered down from roadside billboards, fluttering flags, and the decaying facades of Soviet-style tower blocks.

It began to feel like we were long lost friends.

On saying goodbye to my guide from the airport I was told to wait in the lobby for Mr Hakim, a man from the Office of External Affairs. He was to be my guide, or should I say minder, whose job it was to help ensure I met anyone I wanted so long, of course, as he wanted me to meet them.

The leader

[ image: So near and yet so far]
So near and yet so far
I immediately informed Mr Hakim, a balding man in his late 30s with a disconcerting stare, of my request to interview Colonel Gaddafi as soon as possible.

"What?" he replied. "You want to meet the leader? Why didn't you tell us this before?"

"But I did," I insisted, "several times and in writing."

The omens were already looking bad. I filled out another form and sent a few more faxes.

I withdrew to the comfort of room 736 which was to be my home for the next 10 days, and decided to phone my BBC office to warn them that my proposed interview with Colonel Gaddafi, or as I had now learnt to call him, The Leader, was not exactly in the bag.

In fact, my minder would rather like them to confirm who I am and what I am doing here.

But having been warned that my hotel phone was almost certainly bugged, and probably various objects in the room as well, I surrounded this bad news with copious praise of all things Libyan, including odes to the charming Mr Hakim.

An itinerary

Over the next few days I was repeatedly asked who, in addition to the leader, I would like to interview. Each evening I gave them a list. Then, each morning my guide would arrive with HIS OWN itinerary.

Top of his list was always a trip to the Roman ruins of Sabrata just west of Tripoli.

Each day I would say, I am sure they are very impressive BUT may not reveal all that much about the effects of UN sanctions on Libya. But, each day Sabrata continued to top Hakim's list and each day the battle went on.

Then, just when I was becoming numbed by this jousting and endless interviews specially procured by my guide, the moment I had been waiting for came.

In a state of breathless excitement Mr Hakim knocked on my hotel door. Given the late hour I wondered if I was about to be arrested, perhaps over refusing to visit Sabrata.

I peered out cautiously. My messenger thrust his head through the gap, leant over and whispered in my ear.

"Don't leave your hotel tomorrow. Stay in your room. I am to take you to Sirt, 700km west of Tripoli. The leader is holding a small press conference there. Pack an overnight bag."

Eager anticipation

Six o'clock the following morning, despite a Foreign Office warning that it was not yet safe to fly on Libyan aircraft that had long been short of spare parts, I climbed aboard an old cargo plane with a dozen or so North African journalists bound for the small desert town of Sirt, where Gaddafi spends much of his time.

We took off clutching our small canvas seats, without seatbelts or windows, all doing our best to look nonchalant that is, except a Sudanese journalist next to me, who ignored this communal deception and began to emit small whimpers of panic.

On arrival we were told that the press conference could start at any minute and so no-one was to leave the hotel on any account.

Thirty-six hours later we were still there littering the hotel lobby, note pads, microphones and cameras in a heap by the door.

Boredom and frustration had been enhanced by the fact that the hotel's phones had mysteriously stopped working. Was it possible that someone had got bored with listening to my calls?

The end of the quest?

Then, just as I was settling to watch part three of what seemed to be Libya's favourite soap opera, the call came.

Wild panic ensued as we all fought for places on the coach outside that was to take us to the long-awaited press conference, and the great man himself.

We drove into a swanky-looking hotel complex swarming with armed guards and military men, many of whom eyed me suspiciously from under their peaked hats.

We disappeared up two flights of stairs passing more armed men guarding carpeted corridors before eventually filing into a large elegantly furnished room dominated by a regal-looking mahogany desk.

Behind it sat the man whom I was to be granted special access to, well, for a few minutes anyway. Libya's former foreign minister, rose slowly to shake my hand.

I never did learn where exactly Colonel Gaddafi had gone although I was told that he had become emotionally exhausted after organising the conference and was unable to see me. But, I was assured that my interview with him WOULD take place, though at a later date.

With these words in mind I delayed my flight back to London and awaited the call.

It never came and I am now back in Britain still waiting by that phone. You see, word has it that I could be summoned back to Libya at any tim for that long-awaited interview with Colonel Gaddafi.

Meanwhile, it's back to those well thumbed photos of Sabrata.

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