Mauritania on Saturday arrested Moammar Ghadafi's former intelligence chief, accused of attacking civilians during the uprising in Libya last year and the 1989 bombing of a French airliner. The International Criminal Court, France and Libya all said they want to prosecute Abdullah al-Senoussi.
Mauritania's state information agency said in a statement that al-Senoussi was arrested at the airport in the capital Nouakchott upon arrival from the Moroccan city of Casablanca. It said he was carrying a fake Malian passport.
A spokesman for Libya's ruling National Transitional Council, Mohammed al-Hareiz, confirmed that the ex-intelligence chief had been captured by Mauritian officials.
As Gadhafi's regime crumbled in the second half of 2011 after more than four decades of rule, many of the dictator's inner circle fled from advancing rebels toward the Sahara, where the regime had long cultivated ties with desert groups both in Libya and in neighboring countries.
A Libyan military official said al-Senoussi, who is also Gadhafi's brother-in-law, likely fled to Chad just before the opposition captured the capital Tripoli in October and passed through Mali and Morocco before heading to Mauritania. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the details.
Some Libyan officials reported last year that al-Senoussi had been captured and was being held in the southern city of Sabha. But some later cast doubt on that assertion, and his whereabouts have not been known _ a reflection of the confusion in post-Gadhafi Libya, where "revolutionary militias" hold local control in many towns and cities with little accountability to the Tripoli government.
In October, a Western diplomatic official in Mali's capital, Bamako, told The Associated Press that al-Senoussi was in Mali and that the French government was taking the lead in hunting him down. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The Libyan government said in a statement Saturday it has requested from Mauritian officials that the spy chief be handed over to them for trial, but the line to prosecute al-Senoussi is long.
Judges at the Netherlands-based ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Senoussi last June on two counts of crimes against humanity _ murder and persecution _ for allegedly masterminding attacks on civilians in the early days of the uprising that eventually toppled Gadhafi from power.
He is wanted in Libya for a number of crimes, including his alleged role in the Abu Salim prison massacre of more than 1,200 prisoners by Gadhafi's regime in 1996.
A spokesman for the ICC, Fadi El Abdallah, said the court was seeking official confirmation from Mauritania of his arrest.
"We will ask them for their cooperation in order to surrender him (to the court)," he said.
El Abdallah said that while Mauritania is not a member of the court, all UN member states have been urged by the Security Council to cooperate in the court's efforts to prosecute suspects indicted in Libya.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is leading a delegation to the region, told reporters in Tripoli that the U.S. had a "particular interest (in seeing him arrested) because of his role with the Lockerbie bombing."
The 1988 airplane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland killed 270 people. The only person convicted in the bombing was returned to Libya in 2009.
France also quickly lobbied to get custody of al-Senoussi. He was one of six Libyans convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison in France for the 1989 bombing of a passenger jet over Niger that killed all 170 people on board including 54 French people. The French government asked last year that he be handed over to France when captured.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said Saturday that France would be handing over an extradition request for al-Senoussi to Mauritanian authorities in the next few hours. The French leader said his arrest was the result of a joint French-Mauritanian effort.
Families of victims of the deadly plane bombing said they hoped he would be sent to France to stand trial.
"Twenty-two years after the attack, we never lost hope that those responsible for this attack, the most deadly attack to target France, would be judged," said Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, who heads a group of victims' family members.
Rights group Amnesty International said Mauritanian authorities should give priority to the ICC arrest warrant against the former intelligence chief because "the Libyan justice system remains weak and unable to conduct effective investigations into alleged crimes."
If al-Senoussi is handed over to the ICC, he would be the first suspect indicted for alleged atrocities in Libya to be taken into their custody.
The court also indicted Gadhafi but the ousted leader was killed by rebel fighters in October. Libyan authorities say they want to put Seif al-Islam, one of Gadhafi's sons, on trial at home instead of turning him over him to the court.
Libyan officials are currently holding al-Islam, who was arrested in November by fighters in Libya's remote southern desert. The former heir apparent has been held largely without access to the outside world ever since.
Associated Press writer Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.