A man who appeared to be Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, but who refused to confirm his identity, was flown by Libyan militiamen to the town of Zintan on Saturday from the desert where he was captured, a Reuters correspondent who was on the plane said.

The man, who fighters said was the late Muammar Gaddafi's son and onetime heir apparent, wore traditional robes with a scarf pulled over his face, but those features visible despite a heavy black beard - as well as his rimless spectacles - conformed to pictures of the 39-year-old younger Gaddafi.

The man's thumb, index and another finger were heavily bandaged. One of his captors said that Saif al-Islam had been injured in a NATO air strike some weeks ago. He and his four, armed male companions had been captured without a fight.

Ahmed Ammar, one of the captors, told Reuters that his unit of 15 men in three vehicles, acting on a tip-off about a possible high-profile fugitive had intercepted two cars carrying Gaddafi and the four others in the desert about 70 km (40 miles) from the small oil town of Obari at about 1:30 a.m. (2330 GMT on Friday).

After the fighters fired in the air and ground in order to halt the cars, they asked the identity of the travellers. The man in charge replied that he was Abdelsalam - a name that happens to mean 'servant of peace'. But the fighters quickly recognised him as Gaddafi and seized him without a fight.

At the beginning he was very scared. He thought we would kill him, Ammar said - Gaddafi's father was abused and killed after being captured a month ago on Sunday.

The fighters put him at ease, however, and he relaxed, accepting that he would be taken to Zintan, a town in the western mountains south of Tripoli that was a stronghold of anti-Gaddafi rebels during the war.

BIG CROWD

A crowd of hundreds thronged the runway in Zintan, preventing his captors removing the prisoner for an hour. Some people tried to board the plane but were held back by the fighters, who all come from Zintan.

Gaddafi appeared relatively at ease and was not handcuffed as he sat on a bench at the rear of a Soviet-built cargo plane. But he and his companions refused to talk to the Reuters journalists who were on the flight.

Three of the other Arab men appeared to be in their 30s or 40s, the other was a youth in his late teens or early 20s. Unlike Saif al-Islam, who wore brown Tuareg robes, they were dressed in modern clothing. Two were handcuffed together, one had his hands cuffed in front of him.

Their captors said they believed the youngest of the prisoners was a son of Abdallah al-Senussi, Gaddafi's former intelligence chief who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

None of the prisoners would speak to Reuters, who saw them loaded, along with about a dozen captors, at Obari. The detained men did speak, apparently at ease, to the fighters.

Ammar said the fighters had found rifles and a few thousand dollars in cash in the vehicles seized. He said they believed Gaddafi had been hiding in the deserts between Obari and the town of Bani Walid, where he was last seen last month. They thought he had been planning to cross the border into Niger.

Ammar said: I am happy for the Libyan mothers who lost their sons, for the women who lost their husbands, for all our people - not just because I caught him.

(Writing by Alastair Macdonald)