Late this morning, as fighting between rebels and loyalists intensified near Muammar Qaddafi's Tripoli compound and NATO admitted that it had no idea where the Libyan leader was, Al Arabiya issued a baffling tweet, "Qaddafi says he is in Tripoli and will not leave the country: world chess chief." The message was in reference to a breaking Interfax news agency report that a defiant Qaddafi had called Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, on Tuesday to let him know that he was "alive and well and still in Tripoli and not planning to leave Libya." Ilyumzhinov added that Qaddafi's son Mohammed, who had placed the call for his father, claimed that Libyan forces would "drive the rats out of the city." The report raises several perplexing questions.
Who is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov? Ilyumzhinov is the president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and former head of the Russian desert region of Kalmykia. The multimillionaire is famously eccentric. "He has repeatedly claimed to have met aliens and even on one occasion to have been shown round their spaceship," AFP observes.
Why is Ilyumzhinov friends with Qaddafi? The Guardian explains that Ilyumzhinov and Qaddafi first met when Tripoli hosted the World Chess Championships in 2004. In June Qaddafi and his Mohammed played chess with Ilyumzhinov while the chess chief was visiting Libya as part of an effort to promote chess in Africa (Ilyumzhinov called Qaddafi "just an enthusiast who knows where to put the pieces and do a child's play checkmate"). Ilyumzhinov said he had no reservations about meeting with the Libyan leader. "I would happily meet with anyone," he explained to Moscow Echo radio. "I am not a politician, I went there as a sportsman."
Why would Qaddafi call Ilyumzhinov, of all people? Okay, so Ilyumzhinov and Qaddafi are, improbably, friends of a sort. But why, as his regime teeters on the brink of collapse and rebels surround his compound, would the Libyan leader decide that the person he really needed to speak to was his chess partner? There's always the possibility, of course, that the call didn't take place. But if Ilyumzhinov's account is accurate, it's possible that Qaddafi may have simply been calling his few remaining friends. As The Guardian noted back in June, "Qaddafi appears to have very few friends left, with China and Russia having made overtures to the rebel administration in Benghazi in recent weeks. He does still have President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela on side, however, and, of course, Ilyumzhinov."