CAIRO — Mystery shrouded the startling appearance early Tuesday of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son and onetime heir, Saif al Islam Gadhafi, at a hotel in Tripoli, less than 48 hours after Libyan rebels had reported that he'd been captured.
Had he escaped? Had he ever been captured? Was his reported capture, with its confirmation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, intentional disinformation to demoralize Gadhafi supporters, or just another instance of the fog of war clouding events?
On Tuesday, no one who was in a position to know would offer an opinion.
The leader of the rebels' National Transitional Council, the opposition body poised to lead Libya after Gadhafi's ouster, offered no explanation. When asked about Saif Gadhafi's obvious freedom, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil simply smiled and stopped taking questions.
A spokeswoman for the International Criminal Court didn't respond to questions about what evidence the prosecutor's office had relied on when it issued a statement confirming that Saif Gadhafi was in custody and suggesting that on Monday, there would be discussions about transferring him to The Hague to stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity.
The ICC issued this hardly clarifying statement: "There are three arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court. If Moammar Gadhafi, Saif al Islam Gadhafi and Abdullah al Senussi (Gadhafi's intelligence chief) are arrested, they should face justice."
The White House, too, remained silent on the subject. An emailed request for comment, sent late Monday Washington time, went unanswered, and spokesmen were unavailable Tuesday as President Barack Obama, on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., spent much of the day on the golf course.
Not even Saif Gadhafi would offer an opinion on how he happened to be free when the ICC and the rebels had reported him under arrest. "The ICC can go to hell," he said, according to news agency reports, when he was asked by reporters at the Rixos hotel about his alleged detention.
Saif Gadhafi then led reporters on a tour of Tripoli in an effort to show that the city remained under his father's control. The tour included a rousing meeting with armed supporters at the Bab al Aziziya compound that had been his father's Tripoli headquarters.
It was impressive theater, though its impact no doubt was lessened by events later in the day, when rebels surged into the complex and looted it.
"Oh my God. I was in Gadhafi's room," said one man who was shown by Britain's Sky TV wearing what he said was Gadhafi's hat and a gold chain. "Oh my God. I'm going to take this."
Neither Saif nor his father were anywhere to be found.
What damage Saif Gadhafi's appearance will have on the transitional council's credibility has yet to be seen. Rebel leaders are eager to prove they're able to secure Tripoli, restore order and work openly with international partners. If they bungled Saif Gadhafi's arrest, allowing him to escape, it raises questions about their effectiveness. Another of Gadhafi's sons, Mohammed, also escaped rebel custody in uncertain circumstances, according to news reports.
If the council never detained Saif Gadhafi in the first place, then its statements to the contrary suggest one of two possibilities: a disinformation campaign intended to discourage Gadhafi forces in Tripoli that had the connivance of U.S. officials and perhaps others, or a failure of communication between the rebel forces that swept into Tripoli and the rebel leadership in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the country's east.
Such a miscommunication could become a stumbling block on the council's path to be taken seriously by a nervous Libyan population and foreign allies who are vital to the rebuilding effort.
But many just chalked it up to an ongoing campaign to use the news media to maximum effect.
"The media war is going and will continue," said Ziad Akl, an analyst at the Ahram Center research institute in Cairo. "You saw Saif Gadhafi speak nonsense as soon as he showed up after his alleged escape. I think most probably he was detained by civilians who have no experience in securing high-importance hostages."
And he added a bit of advice.
"Following Libya news for the past months has proved that we have to wait a few days before we can verify the news that comes out," Akl said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.