TRIPOLI, Libya -- – Embattled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who is trying to hold onto power in his deeply divided nation, is getting a little support this week from a group of Italian models.
While Qaddafi’s home-grown supporters are staging noisy rallies daily in the capital demanding NATO withdraws, three European beauties and their entourage slipped quietly into the capital, Tripoli, accompanied by Italian-born Alessandro Londero, owner of the modeling and hostess website Hostessweb.
The group is staying in the same hotel as the heavily controlled international media. They told Fox News that they paid for their own airfares and are being ferried around the city as guests of the Qaddafi camp, although it's unclear if the Libyan government is picking up other expenses.
Londero said the visit was a private one to show solidarity with the Libyan people in this time of crisis.
“As we came to Libya before, we wanted to come again, in this moment that is so critical, and then to go back to Italy and tell them what we saw with our own eyes,” said Londero. “We have many friends here in Libya and friendship is about demonstrating you are close to somebody in difficult moments. This is why we came."
In the past two years, Qaddafi has hosted several cultural visits for other young women recruited by the Rome-based agency. The trips began shortly after October 2009 when the eccentric Libyan leader travelled to Italy and hosted the first in a series of conventions for young Italians, mostly women, lecturing them on the virtues of Islam and female empowerment.
As part of the exchange Italian women travelled to Libya on sponsored tours which culminated in a visit to Qaddafi’s Bedouin tent pitched in the desert where Islamic conversion were reported to have occurred.
“When we met Qaddafi there were about 1,000 people there, and all the conversations were about religion and culture and the position of women in Libya. He was trying to explain to us how things are in Libya,” said Londero.
Londero dismisses any innuendo about the groups’ frequent visits to the North African country - being anything more than a cultural exchange.
“Journalists need to sell papers so they always peddle gossip,” said Londero.
Actress Clio Evans, who has made several trips to Libya, said despite the dangers she wanted to show her support for the Libyan people.
“We are all afraid,” she said. “We came here to Libya, me and my friends, when everything was normal and fine and we met people, very nice people, we made friendships in this country and we want to demonstrate that we are still next to these people in this difficult moment. We’re facing, of course, the fear of the bombs.”
Evans also scoffed at the suggestions the visits by the hostesses, would-be actresses and models was anything less than above board.
“That’s all nonsense. When Alessandro told me about the opportunity to visit Libya I thought that it was something amazing and beautiful and I came to visit and start this cultural exchange.” “I’m sad for what’s going on.”
Evans, however, did confirm that Qaddafi once attempted to mediate a marriage between her and one of his nephews.
“He said Clio, Clio sit down. There is someone here who wants to ask for your hand. I was a little worried, I didn’t know what was going on and then I looked around and it was this guy standing there,” she said. “He (Qaddafi) said, 'Do you want to marry ‘yes’ or ‘no’.' That really happened,” said Evans.
The group said that they haven't met with the Libyan leader on this trip, and there is no expectation that they will.
The Italians have visited a military academy for women, local hospitals, universities and Islamic study centers, as well as tourists spots in the country.
Londero said his group will stay for several more days. “Being here represents the fact that Italian people are close to the Libyan people and we didn’t abandon them or leave them behind as they might have thought,” he said.