Libya conflict: Armed Gaddafi loyalists flee to Niger

A Libyan rebel tank takes position in Om El Khanfousa, east of Sirte. Photo: 5 September 2011
Image caption Anti-Gaddafi troops have recently made major advances

A convoy of heavily armed Gaddafi supporters has crossed Libya's southern desert border into Niger.

The convoy, of at least 50 vehicles, is said to be headed for the capital, Niamey. It is believed to include Tuareg fighters recruited by fugitive Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Niger's foreign minister said Col Gaddafi is not in the convoy. His spokesman insists he is still in Libya.

The new Libyan authorities say the convoy is carrying gold and cash.

Col Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the death, even though he has lost control of most of the country.

Tuareg ties

Officials from Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) said the convoy had set out from the Gaddafi-held town of Jufra on Monday.

It arrived later that day in Agadez - 950km (600 miles) from Niamey.

"Vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed from Jufra into Niger with the help of Tuaregs from the Niger tribe," Fathi Baja from the NTC told Reuters.

Another NTC spokesman, Jalal al-Gallal, put the number of vehicles at about 200, and told AFP news agency: "We can't confirm who was in this convoy."

The BBC's Kevin Connolly, in the Libyan capital Tripoli, says there is speculation that the convoy could be carrying members of Col Gaddafi's entourage, as the desert route is the likeliest way for them to escape troops loyal to the NTC.

Many Tuareg former rebels from Mali and Niger were trained in Libya in the 1970s and 80s.

A number of Col Gaddafi's aides - including his chief of security, Mansour Daw - have already reached Niamey, according to Niger officials.

They are said to have entered the country in an earlier convoy on Sunday.

The US called on Niger to arrest senior pro-Gaddafi figures entering the country. "We have strongly urged the Nigeran officials to detain those members of the regime who may be subject to prosecution," state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

Meanwhile earlier reports that Burkina Faso, which borders Niger to the south-west, had offered to welcome Col Gaddafi have been denied by the country's communication minister.

Alain Edouard Traore told the BBC: "Burkina Faso has not offered asylum to Mr Gaddafi. Burkina Faso is not informed of Mr Gaddafi coming to this country."

The NTC spokesman in London, Guma el-Gamaty, told the BBC that Niger would be penalised if it was proven to have helped Col Gaddafi escape.

"Niger is a neighbour of Libya from the south and should be considering the future relationship with Libya," said Mr Gamaty. "This - if confirmed - will very much antagonise any future relationship between Libya and Niger."

Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told AFP news agency: "This is not Gaddafi and I do not think the convoy had the numbers attributed to it."

Col Gaddafi's wife, two of his sons and his daughter have already fled to Algeria.

Earlier on Monday, Col Gaddafi's spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said that the Libyan leader was "in very high spirits".

"He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya," Mr Ibrahim told Syrian-based Arrai TV.

Negotiating surrender

An NTC delegation on Tuesday held fresh talks with tribal elders in the town of Bani Walid - 150km (95 miles) south-east of Tripoli.

Image caption Negotiations for the surrender of Bani Walid were carried live on Libyan TV

Bani Walid is one of four towns and cities still controlled by Gaddafi supporters. The others are Jufra, Sabha and Col Gaddafi's birthplace of Sirte.

The NTC, which has positioned forces outside Bani Walid, has been trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender.

After the talks chief NTC negotiator Abdullah Kenshil told AFP the elders had been "reassured that we do not mean them harm and we will preserve their lives".

The senior negotiator for the elders told the BBC that they had returned to Bani Walid to convince residents and pro-Gaddafi troops to let them enter the town. He said he was confident of a peaceful end to the stand-off.

NTC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil has said the talks would continue until a deadline on Saturday.

As well as being a Gaddafi stronghold, Bani Walid is also the home of the biggest and most powerful Libyan tribe, the Warfalla.

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