Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press
NIAMEY, Niger — Armed loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi including top brass crossed in convoys from Libya into neighboring Niger, with the toppled Libyan leader's own security chief at the head of one of the columns as it rolled into the capital of this desert nation Tuesday, officials said.
Customs official Harouna Ide told The Associated Press that Mansour Dao, Gadhafi's security chief, was at the head of the first convoy. He said other Libyan convoys were south of Agadez in central Niger, a desert country bordering Libya and where Gadhafi has the support of many Tuareg tribal fighters.
It wasn't clear if Gadhafi family members were in the convoys but al-Arabiya television quoted Niger's Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed as saying Gadhafi himself was not present.
Assarid Ag Imbarcaouane, an official from neighboring Mali, said the convoy was carrying Gadhafi's entourage. Imbarcaouane is second vice president of the National Assembly of Mali and is a pro-Gadhafi Tuareg leader.
"As far as the information I have received, the Guide is not in the convoy," he said, referring to Gadhafi. "Rather, it's the people in Gadhafi's entourage."
The customs official said there were a dozen vehicles in Dao's convoy, and that among passengers were about 12 Gadhafi officials, Niger's Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula and other Tuaregs from Niger who had gone to Libya to fight for Gadhafi.
Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, said he saw one of the groups arrive in his town Monday in several dozen pickup trucks. He said they headed for the capital, Niamey, a drive of some 600 miles (965 kilometers). The capital is in Niger's southwestern corner near the nation of Burkina Faso, where Gadhafi has been offered asylum.
Harouna said he saw Boula in the convoy. Boula is a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago before seeking refuge in Libya.
The government of Burkina Faso said late last month they would recognize the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council. Foreign minister Djibril Bassolet also said the landlocked West African nation would welcome Gadhafi "if he wishes it."
A top security official in Burkina Faso said government officials have not been advised about any convoy headed for Burkina Faso. The official asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak to journalists.
Both Niger and Burkina Faso are signatories to the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for the Libyan leader, his son and the country's intelligence chief. But both nations also belong to the African Union, which during a July summit called on member countries to disregard the warrant. The AU and many African leaders have become increasingly critical of the court, accusing it of targeting Africans.
Western officials said they did not have any information on the convoy. Harouna says the pro-Gadhafi troops accompanying Boula were well-armed.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the ministry did not know who was in the vehicles.
"We have no more information than you do," he told a reporter. "We are monitoring the movement of these vehicles, and we will see."
Gadhafi's regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Gadhafi.
Gadhafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, a Sahara Desert market town where a majority of the population is Tuareg. There, the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy.
Harouna said the pro-Gadhafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit. The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month. The rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Gadhafi strongholds, in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.
Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town as their leaders tried to negotiate a surrender deal.
Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Gadhafi from power, though rebel forces backed by NATO airstrikes have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.
The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris; Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.
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