NIAMEY The likely flight of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi from Libya to neighbouring Niger leaves the West African nation trying to balance its commitment to the International Criminal Court with avoiding another rebellion by heavily armed Tuareg tribesmen.
After the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya itself risks tribal violence, insurgency and chaos unless Tripoli's new government disarms regional militias and eases the grievances bottled up during 42 years of one-man rule.
Thought to be on the run somewhere in the mountains on Libya's southern borders with Algeria and Niger, Saif al-Islam, 39, is desperately seeking to avoid the fate of his father, who was beaten, abused and shot as forces of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) captured him on October 20 after the fall of his home town Sirte.
Saif al-Islam's surrender to the ICC would help restore the image of the NATO-backed campaign to overthrow Gaddafi which was tarnished in the eyes of some in the West by film of the former strongman humiliated, killed and put on public display.
The ICC wants to try Saif al-Islam for crimes against humanity and its prosecutor said on Sunday he had "substantial evidence" that Saif al-Islam had helped hire mercenaries to attack Libyan civilians protesting against his father's rule.
"We have a witness who explained how Saif was involved with the planning of the attacks against civilians, including in particular the hiring of core mercenaries from different countries and the transport of them, and also the financial aspects he was covering," ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters during a visit to Beijing.
"So we have substantial evidence to prove the case, but of course Saif is still (presumed) innocent, and (will) have to go to court and the judge will decide," he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said he would brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday about the court's work in Libya.
A senior member of Niger's coalition government told Reuters Saif al-Islam's whereabouts remained unknown, but that surrender was his best option. Niger would cooperate with the ICC to ensure he was handed over as safely as possible.
"It's perhaps best that he goes of his own accord rather than to be hunted and caught by Libyans who will end up lynching him as they did to his father," said Habi Mahamadou Salissou, vice-president of the Nigerien Democratic Movement.
But Tuareg nomads straddling the border region, many of them returning home with their weapons after fighting for Gaddafi in Libya, still feel a sense of loyalty to the late dictator who bankrolled their revolts in Niger.
"Gaddafi backed virtually all the rebellions in Niger and then managed to find a solution to them," said Salissou, a former foreign minister.
Now Niger risks sparking a new Tuareg revolt if it mishandles any entry by Saif al-Islam onto its soil, a leading human rights official there said.
"Niger has the same border, is part of the same family as Libya and has lots of ties with Libya and the Libyans of Gaddafi," said Moustapha Kadi, national coordinator of Niger's human rights and democracy groups.
"Even if the government takes the decision (to hand al-Islam over) national opinion must be consulted to make sure that this does not create further tensions -- that is the last thing we need right now," he said in an interview.
Thanks in part to talks hosted by Gaddafi, Niger and neighbouring Mali managed in 2009 to seal a shaky peace with Tuareg rebels after a two-year insurgency that was just the latest bout of unrest in the north going back decades.
"If he decides to seek asylum, the government is free to study that - without ruling out the ICC's request. We should put Niger's interests first," said Kadi. "We have just got shot of a rebellion. We don't want any more conflict in the north."
The NTC may try Saif al-Islam itself, but the fugitive Libyan has been in indirect contact with the ICC over a possible surrender, though he may also harbour hopes that mercenaries can spirit him to a friendly African country.
Algeria, which took in Saif al-Islam's mother, sister, brother Hannibal and half-brother Mohammed, is not a signatory to the treaty that set up the ICC. Nor is Sudan or Zimbabwe.
The Hague-based ICC has warned Saif al-Islam that it could order a mid-air interception if he tried to flee by plane from his unidentified Sahara desert hideout for a safe haven.
"We received through an informal intermediary some questions from Saif apparently about the legal system -- what happens to him if he appears before the judges, can he be sent to Libya, what happens if he's convicted, what happens if he's acquitted," said Moreno-Ocampo.
"We are not in any negotiations with Saif," he said, adding that the ICC would not later force him to return to Libya provided another country is willing to receive him after he is either acquitted or is convicted and has served his sentence.
The NTC's interim information minister, Mahmoud Shammam, said the council had not discussed the indirect contacts between Saif al-Islam and the ICC. "We don't have a formal position on the reports," he told Reuters in Tripoli.
Before a popular uprising imperiled his father's grip on Libya, Saif al-Islam had cast himself as an enlightened supporter of reform at home and across the Arab world. But then he swore to crush opponents of his father's 42-year rule.
Asked about Saif al-Islam's metamorphosis, Moreno-Ocampo said: "After all these years, nothing surprises me."