TARHOUNA, Libya – Convoys of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger in a move that Libya’s former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last strongholds.
Still, efforts to negotiate the peaceful handover of one of the most crucial of those bastions, the city of Bani Walid, proved difficult.
Tribal elders from Bani Walid who met Tuesday with former rebels were confronted by angry residents of the city, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired in the air and sent them fleeing, mediators said. Many in Bani Walid remain deeply mistrustful of the forces that have seized power in Libya and are reluctant to accept their rule.
Some former rebels depicted the flight to Niger as a major exodus of Gadhafi’s most hard-core backers. But confirmed information on the number and identity of those leaving was scarce given the vast swath of desert – over 1,000 miles – between populated areas on the two sides of the border.
In Niger’s capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president of the landlocked African nation which shares a border with Libya, said that Gadhafi’s security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday accompanied by a major Tuareg rebel.
The government of Niger dispatched a military convoy to escort Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya’s Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Gadhafi as well as a member of his inner circle, to Niamey.
Dao is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said Hassoumi, who denied reports that Gadhafi or any member of his immediate family were in the convoy.
Hassoumi said the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country’s north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Gadhafi.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, “We don’t have any evidence that Gadhafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment.”
Since Tripoli’s fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Gadhafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbor Mali who fought on Gadhafi’s behalf in the recent civil war.
There has been intense speculation regarding the whereabouts of Gadhafi’s inner circle and last week, Algeria, which like Niger shares a border with Libya – confirmed that the ousted leader’s wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed onto Algerian soil.
Hassoumi spoke of “waves” of returnees crossing over from Libya that preceded the arrival Monday of Gadhafi’s security chief, but he said they were mostly Tuaregs and not Libyan soldiers or civilians. Tuareg fighters have long been enlisted as mercenaries for Gadhafi’s regime.
Customs official Harouna Ide told the AP that in addition to the convoy with Dao, other convoys from Libya were south of Agadez in central Niger.
Nuland said the U.S. has urged Niger to detain anyone who might be subject to prosecution in Libya, confiscate weapons and impound any state property such as money or jewels that were illegally taken out of the country.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month, raising speculation the convoys were part of plan to arrange passage there for the ousted leader. But on Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he came there.
A significant move to escape by the top echelons of Gadhafi’s military and security services could bring an important shift in Libya.