Benghazi: Scores of Libyan army vehicles have crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what may be a dramatic, secretly negotiated bid by Muammar Gaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters Tuesday.
The Libyan rebels who overthrew Gaddafi two weeks ago said they also thought about a dozen other vehicles that crossed the remote border were carrying gold and cash apparently looted from a branch of Libya`s central bank in Gaddafi`s home town.
The military sources said a convoy of between 200 and 250 vehicles was escorted to the northern city of Agadez by the army of Niger, a poor and landlocked former French colony. It might, according to a French military source, be joined by Gaddafi en route for adjacent Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum.
France, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as Libya`s new rulers and NATO, all denied knowing where Gaddafi was or of any deal to let him go abroad or find refuge from Libyans and the International Criminal Court who want to put him on trial.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said it was for Libyans to decide the venue but that Gaddafi would not be allowed to slip away quietly. "He will have to face justice for all the crimes he has committed in the past 42 years," he said.
Niger`s foreign minister, Bazoum Mohamed, was quoted by Al Arabiya television saying that Gaddafi was not in the convoy, which arrived late Monday. An aide to French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "We have no specific information that would indicate that Gaddafi is there."
But those comments did not contradict a French military source who said the 69-year-old fugitive and his son and heir Saif al-Islam might join the convoy later to head for Burkina.
France has taken a lead in the NATO action to back Libya`s uprising and, with its Western allies, would be likely to have the ability to track any sizeable convoy in the empty quarter.
But Niger`s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Adani Illo, told Reuters that such surveillance over thousands of miles of desert was still hard. "The desert zone is vast and the frontier is porous," he said. "If a convoy of 200 to 250 vehicles went through, it is like a drop of water in an ocean."
Gaddafi has broadcast defiance since being forced into hiding two weeks ago, and vowed to die fighting on his own soil. But he also has long friendships with the poor African states to the south, with which he shared some of Libya`s oil wealth.
The sources said the convoy, probably including officers from army units based in the south of Libya, may have looped through Algeria rather than crossing the Libyan-Niger frontier directly. Algeria last week took in Gaddafi`s wife, daughter and two other sons, angering the interim council now running Libya.
Gaddafi`s fugitive spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said in remarks broadcast on Monday: "Muammar Gaddafi is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits ... He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya."
NATO warplanes and spy satellites have been scouring Libya`s deserts for months, raising the likelihood that any convoy of the size mentioned would have been spotted. But a spokesman for the Western alliance said it was not hunting Gaddafi and had a UN mandate only to prevent his forces attacking civilians.
"Or mission is to protect the civilian population in Libya, not to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people," Colonel Roland Lavoie said in a statement.
Tuareg nomads who inhabit the Sahara across frontiers say those fleeing Libya include many black Africans, some of whom may have been fighters for Gaddafi and most of whom fear the anger and reprisals of Gaddafi`s enemies among Libya`s Arabs.
Both Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam, the most prominent of his sons, were said by commanders from Libya`s National Transitional Council (NTC) last week to be in the tribal stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 km (90 miles) south of Tripoli. But that belief has evaporated this week after days of blockade of the town.
NTC officials said Saif al-Islam, for one, may have escaped south into the desert, toward the southern, pro-Gaddafi bastion of Sabha and perhaps on to Niger. Fully 1,300 km (800 miles) of sand separate Sabha from Agadez, with a further 750 km of road to travel to Niamey, the capital of Niger. Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, lies 400 km further east of Niamey.
In what might be an indication that high-level figures from the old regime are no longer in Bani Walid, following on-off negotiations with tribal elders, NTC negotiators hoped for a peaceful surrender to avoid further bloodshed.
Local leaders received assurances at a front-line parley that there would be no reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists.
Near Sirte, Gaddafi`s home town on the Mediterranean coast, there was the first sign of heavy fighting for some days. Combatants reported exchanges of shell fire and rockets to the east.
A spokesman for the NTC said that banknotes included in the convoy of gold and cash that the council believed had reached Niger had been stolen from Sirte`s branch of the Central Bank of Libya. An NTC official, Fathis Baja, told Reuters: "Late last night, 10 vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed from Jufra into Niger with the help of Tuaregs from the Niger tribe."
It was unclear if these vehicles were separate from the much larger military convoy reported by the foreign sources.
The head of Gaddafi`s security brigades, Mansour Dhao, along with more than 10 other Libyans, crossed into Niger Sunday, two Niger officials had said earlier Monday.
The French military source said he had been told that the commander of Libya`s southern forces, General Ali Khana, may also be in Niger, not far from the Libyan border.
He said he had been told that Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam would join Khana and catch up with the convoy should they choose to accept Burkina Faso`s offer of exile.
Burkina Faso, also once a French colony and a former recipient of large amounts of Libyan aid, offered Gaddafi sanctuary about two weeks ago but has also recognized the National Transitional Council as Libya`s government.
Burkina`s foreign minister, Yipene Djibril Bassolet, said that Gaddafi could go into exile in his country even though it has signed the ICC treaty requiring it to hand over suspects to The Hague. President Blaise Compaore, like Gaddafi, took power in a military coup. He has run the country for 24 years.
Gaddafi has long touted his origins among the peoples of the desert and, having largely turned his back on fellow Arab leaders, most of them allied with his Western adversaries, he long portrayed himself as a leader of the African continent.
The drama of a flight across the Sahara into friendlier lands further south might seem a fitting departure to many.
However, his spokesman Ibrahim said: "We will prevail in this struggle until victory ... We are still strong, and we can turn the tables over against those traitors and NATO allies."