Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press
TARHOUNA, Libya — Armed loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi, including his security chief, fled into neighboring Niger in multiple convoys across hundreds of miles of desert on Tuesday. Libya's former rebels — now the country's de facto rulers — claimed the convoys were a major flight by Gadhafi's most hardcore backers from his final strongholds.
The claims could not immediately be confirmed. Information on the size of the convoys and who was in them was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of Sahara — over 1,000 miles — between any populated areas on the two sides of the border.
But as the first group of a dozen vehicles pulled into Niger's capital Niamey on Tuesday, a customs official confirmed that it included Mansour Dao, Gadhafi's security chief and a key member of his inner circle, as well as around 12 other Gadhafi regime officials. The official, Harouna Ide, told The Associated Press that other Libyan convoys had passed through Agadez, a town about halfway between Niger's border with Libya and its capital in the far southwest.
Gadhafi himself is not in the convoys, Niger's Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed said, according to Al-Arabiya television.
A significant flight by Gadhafi's senior regime figures could bring an important shift as the opposition forces that swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and toppled the longtime leader struggle to shut down the last holdouts of his supporters.
Three major cities remain under Gadhafi's sway — Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. The anti-Gadhafi leadership has been negotiating with tribal leaders in Bani Walid to try to arrange a peaceful entry of its forces into the city, but talks have made little headway amid deep suspicions between the two sides. Opposition officials have depicted the populations in Bani Walid and the other towns as divided, with some prepared to surrender, some still backing Gadhafi, and with a hard core of former regime figures forcing the towns to dig in.
If those hardcore figures flee in large numbers, it could reduce backing for Gadhafi among residents and open the door for an end to the standoff. Before news of the convoys emerged, Col. Abdullah Hussein Salem, who is involved in the military negotiations and coordination for entering Bani Walid, said one of the options in the negotiations is to allow the Gadhafi supporters to get out of the town, without a chase.
Still, it remained unknown if the convoys represented such a major move to escape. A spokesman for Tripoli's new military council said the leadership was aware of the convoy but had few details. "It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort," Anis Sharif said.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance did not have any immediate information about the convoy.
NATO warplanes don't normally patrol that deep south in the Sahara, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing alliance policy.
Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant in a Tuesday phone call to the Syrian TV station al-Rai, saying the ousted leader was "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya." Ibrahim, who the rebels believe was in Bani Walid, said both Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," he said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO," he said, though the regime effectively collapsed more than a week ago.
But many in the new leadership depicted the move as a significant run for the border by Gadhafi's inner circle.
Guma El-Gamaty, a British-based spokesman for the National Transitional Council — the de facto government — said the convoys included "the heavyweight political, military and media officials and officers" and described them as " a turning point" that could lead to the handover of Bani Walid and Sirte.
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