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Britain Debriefs Former Libyan Foreign Minister

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

NPR's Philip Reeves has the latest from London.

PHILIP REEVES: Koussa's unexpected arrival in Britain is a major propaganda coup for Gadhafi's opponents. For weeks, coalition leaders have urged the Colonel's inner circle to abandon him. British Prime Minister David Cameron says Koussa's now done that, dealing a serious blow to Gadhafi's authority.

DAVID CAMERON: It does show a huge amount of decay, distrust and breakdown at the heart of the Gadhafi regime. This was his foreign minister. This was a key member of his government.

REEVES: Koussa touched down, declared he'd resigned and began talking to British officials voluntarily, they say. Koussa's a former head of Libyan intelligence. He's played a leading role in Gadhafi's regime for years. The British know him well, says Foreign Secretary William Hague. Hague's been talking to him since the start of the military operation against Libya.

WILLIAM HAGUE: He has been my channel of communication for the regime in recent weeks and I have spoken to him several times on the telephone, most recently last Friday. His resignation shows that Gadhafi's regime, which has already seen significant defections to the opposition, is fragmented, under pressure and crumbling from within.

REEVES: In Tripoli, Gadhafi's government sought to shrug off the loss of a big player. Spokesman Musa Ibrahim admitted the regime was surprised to learn Koussa had gone to Britain. He only had permission to go to Tunisia to be treated for diabetes and high blood pressure. But, said Ibrahim, plenty of Libyan's could fill Koussa's shoes.

MUSA IBRAHIM: He's a man who truly and seems maybe genuinely feels tired and exhausted. He's an old man. He has serious health problems. His heart, his body could not take the pressure. You know, we understand that.

REEVES: Unidentified Man: Is it helpful that the Libyan foreign minister would possibly now defected?

DAVID RICHARDS: Unidentified Man: And will it be helpful to (unintelligible)?

RICHARDS: I think so, psychologically. It's all about psychology. It can't be helpful to Gadhafi.

REEVES: Koussa's not the first top official to abandon Gadhafi. In the early days of the civil war, Gadhafi's interior and justice ministers defected to the rebels. But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, says Koussa's the biggest fish so far.

OLIVER MILES: He's not absolutely in the inner circle, I don't think. I think the inner circle is mainly restricted to Gadhafi's own family. But short of that, he's as powerful as they come.

REEVES: Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, says defections like Koussa's matter a lot.

JACK STRAW: There is unlikely to be any kind of military quick victory for either side. It does depend on which side psychologically collapses. Now, I don't think the rebels are going to and nobody wants them to. So it's about boring away inside the kind of brain and heart of the regime.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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