Mauritania has agreed that Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, arrested in Nouakchott last week, can be extradited to Libya, Libya's deputy prime minister has said.
The decision, if implemented, sets Libya on a collision course with France and the international war crimes court in The Hague, which also want to extradite Senussi, Gaddafi's right-hand man before the Libyan leader's overthrow and death in a popular revolt last year.
"I have met the president of Mauritania and he agreed to the extradition of Senussi to Libya," Mustafa Abu Shagour, the Libyan deputy prime minister, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday in a comment confirmed as official by a Libyan government representative.
A Mauritanian security source said a deal was close, but acknowledged pressure from Paris.
"We agreed to study their request favourably. It's almost a done deal but one should be careful. The French are applying lots of pressure," the source said on condition of anonymity.
"They say their claim takes priority because their arrest warrant went in first and because they helped with the arrest."
'Crimes against humanity'
Senussi, whose whereabouts had been unclear for months, was arrested at Mauritania's Nouakchott airport late on Friday when he stepped off a flight from Morocco.
A senior Libyan delegation to Mauritania feted President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz for his "brave stance" in arresting Senussi, and during talks at his presidency stressed that Senussi should be extradited to Libya.
"We greatly appreciate the position of the president who promised us that good will come of this matter," said a statement attributed to Shagour earlier and issued by Mauritania's official news agency AMI.
France and the International Criminal Court also want Senussi. The ICC has indicted him for crimes against humanity, while he is also alleged to have had a role in the 1989 bombing of an airliner in which 54 French nationals died.
"We want Senussi to be extradited to France. We feel we owe it to the victims' families and to justice," Bernard Valero, the French foreign ministry spokesman, said of a step that would allow France to confirm the life sentence already handed down to Senussi in absentia by a French court.
Separately, diplomatic sources said the United States - which on Monday confirmed it had contacts with Mauritania over Senussi - had requested access to him before any transfer.
"The Americans put in a request to Mauritanian authorities yesterday (Monday) morning to be able to meet Senussi while he is still in Mauritania, said one diplomatic source.
A second diplomat also confirmed the request had been made. No comment was immediately available either from the Mauritanian or US governments.
Senussi's name has been linked to the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland of a Pan Am jet that killed 270 people. A State Department spokeswoman said on Monday the US had long expressed an interest in talking to him about it.
Human rights groups doubt Senussi, 62, will have a fair trial in Libya and have called for his transfer to the ICC.
Amnesty International described the Libyan judicial system as "paralysed", noting it had not successfully investigated the death of prisoners in rebel detention or high-profile cases such as the death of former military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis.
"The Libyan judiciary has done nothing. It has held no one accountable and has not investigated a single case yet," Amnesty's Donatella Rovera told Reuters news agency.
However, Khalifa Faraj Ashour, the deputy justice minister, told Reuters in Tripoli the former intelligence chief would be tried fairly in his home country.
"Security is good, the courts are working fine in almost all of the country," he said. "Even if there is a security breach once in a while, we can deal with it."
Ashour said it was too early to discuss what charges Senussi could face in Libya. Interpol has issued a Red Notice for him at Libya's request for fraud offences including embezzling public funds and misuse of power for personal benefit.
"In general, we can say one of the crimes is financial corruption. He knows a lot about hidden money," Ashour said.
Senussi is also suspected of a key role in the killing of more than 1,200 inmates at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996.