Scores of Libyan army vehicles have crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what may be a dramatic, secretly negotiated bid by Muammar Qaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters on Tuesday, amid reports that the effort to track down Qaddafi is being led by competing factions of military commanders and bounty hunters.
A convoy of between 200 and 250 vehicles was given an escort by the army of Niger, a poor and landlocked former French colony to the south of Libya. It might, according to a French military source, be joined by Qaddafi en route for neighboring Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum, according to Reuters.
Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum, meanwhile, said that Qaddafi was not in the convoy that crossed the border from Libya into Niger.
“It is not true, it is not Qaddafi and I do not think the convoy was of the size attributed to it,” he told AFP by phone from Algiers, denying reports that Qaddafi and some of his sons were among the convoy that arrived in Niger on Monday.
A spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) told Reuters a convoy of 10 vehicles that crossed into Niger was carrying money taken from a branch of the Central Bank of Libya.
“They took the money from the central bank in Sirte,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, an NTC spokesman said in Benghazi.
Meanwhile, an official at the Libyan Central Bank told Al Arabiya that no gold was withdrawn from the bank branch in Sirte, but foreign currency might have been withdrawn.
A resident who is the owner of a local newspaper earlier said that a large convoy of Libyan soldiers loyal to Qaddafi crossed the desert border into Niger and rolled into the frontier town of Agadez late Monday.
The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, who saw them arrive, The Associated Press reported.
At the head of the convoy, he said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Qaddafi.
It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Qaddafi family or other high-level members of his regime.
“I saw an exceptionally large and rare convoy of several dozen vehicles enter Agadez from Arlit... and go towards Niamey,” an AFP source said.
“There are persistent rumors that Qaddafi or one of his sons are travelling in the convoy,” the source said.
A journalist from a private radio station in Agadez said he saw “a convoy of several dozen vehicles crossing the city and heading towards Niamey,” the Niger capital.
The journalist said several people reported seeing in the convoy Rhissa Ag Boula, a figurehead Tuareg rebel in Niger who is close to Qaddafi.
The toppled Libyan leader is known to have used battalions of Tuareg fighters who have long-standing ties to Qaddafi. His 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 Qaddafi.
Still popular leader
Qaddafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, where a majority of the population is Tuareg and where the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy. The Sahara Desert market town is the largest city in northern Niger.
Harouna says the pro-Qaddafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit, according to AP. The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Qaddafi’s family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month, though the rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Qaddafi’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 Bani Walid, but have held back on a final assault in hopes of avoiding a bloody battle for the desert town some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The rebels say a small but heavily armed force of pro-Qaddafi fighters - at least some of them high-ranking members of his ousted regime - have taken up defensive positions in the town.
Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Qaddafi from power, though rebel forces - backed by NATO airstrikes - have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Qaddafi’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.
The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that a chaotic and apparently ill-coordinated effort by Libyan protesters to track down Qaddafi was being led by competing factions of military commanders and bounty hunters, as well as Libyan commandos commissioned by civilian leaders.
Libyans involved in the hunt say they are not getting much help from NATO, despite the alliance’s state-of-the-art electronic and aerial surveillance methods. Instead, they are relying on a deluge of human intelligence from informers and witnesses, but seem to be struggling to sift, process and share all the information that is coming in.
Most of the leads come from Qaddafi’s tribal heartland, a vast triangle of scrub and desert land between his coastal home town of Sirte, east of Tripoli; the oasis town of Bani Walid in the west; and the heavily garrisoned city of Sabha on the edge of the Sahara in the south.
Scarcely a day goes by without someone claiming to know exactly where Qaddafi is hiding within that triangle. The problem is that they do not always agree with one another, according to the Post.
On Monday, Anes al-Sharif, a member of the civilian-run Supreme Security Committee in Tripoli, said he had received solid information that Qaddafi had been seen 12 miles south of loyalist-held Sirte just two days ago, preparing to head farther south toward Sabha.
But a member of the ruling Transitional National Council said he had received “reliable information from a person close to Qaddafi” that put the former Libyan leader’s location closer to Bani Walid.
The manhunt for Qaddafi is an important priority both for the revolutionaries and for many Libyan civilians who say they will not feel truly safe until the former dictator is captured or killed. Audio messages from Qaddafi threatening to turn Libya “into hell” have added to the sense of unease here.
Two separate rewards of 2 million and 6 million Libyan dinars ($1.7 million and $5 million) have been offered for Qaddafi’s capture or death, officials said, which has helped encourage the flow of information but also prompted some rebels to go freelance in trying to catch him.
To help coordinate the various manhunts, Sharif told the Washington Post that the security committee in Tripoli would set up a task force and operations room in the next few days.
“At present we are not getting that much information from NATO,” he said. “But we are receiving a lot of information, using many traditional methods, eyewitnesses, people on the ground, telling us where he is and his plans.”
Human intelligence was key to the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Like bin Laden, Qaddafi is avoiding the use of satellite phones that NATO could trace, Sharif said., according to the Washington Post.
Qaddafi, whose fear of an attack from the air had been a feature of his rule since a US airstrike on his main compound in Tripoli in 1986, has also discarded his usual four-wheel-drive vehicles for smaller cars, according to witness accounts cited by revolutionary commanders. The commanders say they do not think he is traveling in the kind of large convoy that could be a target of NATO warplanes.