The Libyan government shrugged off the apparent defection of a key regime figure Thursday, saying the nation's foreign minister was on "sick leave," even as another official announced his resignation and rumors swirled of other departures.
State television was mum about the possible defection of Musa Kusa, who arrived in Britain on Wednesday. A government spokesman said Kusa's departure from the regime's inner circle would mean little to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's overall battle to fend off his many domestic and international enemies.
"We are not relying on individuals to lead this struggle," said government spokesman Musa Ibrahim. "This is the struggle of a whole nation. We have millions of people leading this struggle."
"Mr. Musa Kusa asked for a sick leave because he was exhausted physically and he had diabetes and high blood pressure," Ibrahim said. "The authorities gave him the permission to leave the country to look after himself because he was in bad need of intensive medical care."
On Thursday, Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister who had been chosen as Libya's new ambassador to the United Nations, announced he was resigning the post. Libyan opposition Ahfad Mukhtar television in Benghazi reported at least four other rumored defections, including the head of parliament, another diplomat, the oil minister and the head of foreign intelligence. The report could not be confirmed.
In his statement, Ibrahim said the government had not received official word from Kusa, a former intelligence chief, that he had formally resigned. But some Kadafi supporters already have begun to portray Kusa as a traitor and a Western dupe.
"It's a betrayal," said Abdul Salam Abu Khzam, 36, a pro-Kadafi journalist. "Today the crisis is between the people loyal to the country and the betrayers, who've joined the French, the British and the Americans."
Both Libya specialists and opposition activists described Kusa's departure as a significant but not decisive blow to Kadafi, who has been in power for four decades.
"I don't think he's indispensable," said Richard Dalton, who served as Britain's ambassador to Libya from 1999 to 2002. "It's a blow. But it doesn't mean that the entourage is unraveling. It may just be a one-off."
British officials spent part of Thursday debriefing the former minister. Authorities in Britain are eager to tap Kusa's knowledge of the inner workings of the Kadafi regime, including the size of his security forces, their deployment and morale.
However, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not grant Kusa immunity from prosecution should any charges be warranted.
Kusa has served in leading positions in Libyan intelligence, and there are questions about whether he might have been involved in the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Scottish authorities said Thursday that they were seeking an interview with the former minister.
Some news reports say that Kusa was able to leave Libya for Tunisia several days ago with his family in tow, a crucial detail. Others who would consider defecting might hesitate if it would mean leaving their loved ones behind.
"People don't want to abandon their families. There's a strong sense of family honor and duty … and that's a big inhibition," Dalton said.
He described Kusa as "a very competent and capable public servant" and "a complicated figure with a many-sided history."
Pan-Arab television channels have reported other possible defections over the last 24 hours. Both Arabiya and Al Jazeera said the director of external intelligence, Abuzaid Durda, had fled to Tunisia. Al Jazeera reported that another Foreign Ministry official and the head of parliament had also defected.
An opposition activist reached in the town of Zintan in the rebel-held Western Mountains region of Libya near the Tunisian border described Kusa's resignation as "a big accomplishment" for the revolutionaries, suggesting that the former foreign minister had betrayed Kadafi for personal reasons.
"Musa Kusa resigned because he is worried for his life and for the life of his family and children," said the activist, Khaled, who asked that his last name not be used. "The regime is currently breaking apart from inside, and no one is safe. So anyone around Kadafi knows they will be held accountable and will be punished by the international community."
Even opposition supporters who welcomed Kusa's departure doubted it would affect the war effort. Only one man calls the shots in Libya, said Mohammad Darrat, a businessman and opposition supporter in Misurata.
"Kadafi is always doing everything by himself," he said. "There is no system in Libya. It's a one-man show. Kadafi is leading, and all the orders come from Kadafi. No other person matters."
Times staff writers Henry Chu in Berlin and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.