ZINTAN, Libya — Libyan militia fighters on Saturday captured Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the last fugitive son and onetime heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi, setting off nationwide celebrations but also exposing a potential power struggle between former-rebel factions over his handling.
Militia leaders based in Zintan, a western mountain town and stronghold of resistance to Gadhafi's regime, said they captured Seif al-Islam Gadhafi early Saturday in the southwestern desert near Obari, along with a small entourage.
But while transitional government leaders in the capital, Tripoli, promised that Gadhafi would be closely guarded and turned over to the International Criminal Court to be tried on war crimes charges, leaders in Zintan insisted that they would not hand him over until a formal national government was formed.
That process is in the works, but still at least a day or two away, raising the possibility that Gadhafi could be a bargaining chip to ensure a larger Zintani role in the new government. Such insistence on factional power is at the heart of international concerns about Libya's future. And after Moammar Gadhafi's capture and killing at the hands of militiamen a month ago, his son's case will be an important test of Libya's commitment to the rule of law.
On Saturday, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said he would head to Libya in the next few days to discuss how and where Seif al-Islam Gadhafi would be tried.
"We are coordinating with the Justice Ministry to ensure that any solution is in accordance with the law," said the prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo.
Leaders in Zintan promised that they would protect Gadhafi and that justice would take its course.
"We are arranging a very safe place for him," said Mussa Grife, a member of the Zintan revolutionary movement's political committee. "The people of Zintan want to leave a good impression for the world and treat Seif according to human rights and according to Islamic values."
Tellingly, Abdurrahim el-Keib, the National Transitional Council's prime minister, came to Zintan with an entourage of officials to celebrate the capture.
"Congratulations to all Libya, all men, women and children," he said at a news conference. "Now we can build a new Libya."
El-Keib said the government in Tripoli was in no rush to take direct custody of Gadhafi and that it would let those in Zintan hold him. "We trust their ability to take care of this," he said. "They will keep him in peace, and take care of him, unlike how he treated our people."
In scenes of celebration outstripped only by news of Moammar Gadhafi's capture and death last month, Tripoli's streets erupted in revelry at the news that Seif al-Islam Gadhafi had been seized. Vehicles clogged intersections, horns blaring, and militiamen shot their rifles into the sky. In Zintan, thousands of people poured into the streets as fireworks and rocket and gunfire broke out.
The capture eliminates perhaps the best hope that loyalists had of rallying a new revolution around the remnants of the Gadhafi family. It also represents a personal transformation that turned Seif al-Islam Gadhafi from the most prominent advocate of changing his father's Libya into one of the chief architects of the regime's deadly crackdown on dissent in its final days.
Grife, the member of the Zintan political committee, said fighters had been following Gadhafi through the desert using local sources for intelligence about his whereabouts in the past few weeks. They learned he and a small entourage would try to make a break to leave the country, perhaps bound for Tunisia.
When Zintan fighters blocked Gadhafi's caravan, Gadhafi broke from his vehicle and was captured on foot.
A few shots were fired, but there were no reports of any wounded.
Fighters flew Gadhafi from Obari to Zintan. As he was driven from the Zintan airport to an undisclosed place for detention, residents threw shoes and sandals at the vehicle, a sign of extreme contempt in the Muslim world.