Libya’s former prime minister, al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, has been arrested in Tunisia, Al Arabiya reported, citing unnamed sources, amid reports that many key supporters of Muammar Qaddafi have fled to Niger.
An official in the Tunisian Interior Ministry confirmed the report to Reuters, saying that Tunisian authorities have arrested Mahmoudi, who served as Libyan prime minister until Qaddafi was deposed last month.
“Al-Mahmoudi was arrested yesterday evening,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Baghdadi, “appeared before the state prosecutor in Tozeur (430 kilometers, 270 miles south of Tunis) and sentenced to six months in prison with immediate effect,” Tunisian justice ministry spokesman Kadhem Zine al-Abidine told AFP.
A spokesman for the transitional government, measnwhile, said that several key supporters of fugitive Qaddafi have fled to Niger from the southern desert city of Sabha, freshly captured by new regime forces.
“Prominent figures who were Qaddafi supporters fled to Niger after the fall of Sabha” on Wednesday, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, the military spokesman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), told a news conference without providing names or other details.
He said that Sabha, 750 kilometers (470 miles) south of Tripoli, was under the complete control of revolutionary forces, even though “Qaddafi snipers continue to fire.”
“Pockets of resistance still exist in (the oasis of) Sabha, but the city and surrounding communities have been freed by the revolutionaries,” Bani said, adding that “90 percent of southern towns have been liberated,” according to AFP.
Bani called on citizens in regions still under pro-Qaddafi control to fight “these criminals who use people as human shields.”
Saadi Qaddafi, a son of the fugitive leader, recently sought refuge in Niger.
Niamey has acknowledged it has received 32 prominent Qaddafi family members and loyalists, including three generals.
Niger has officially recognized the NTC, but maintains it accepted Qaddafi loyalists “on humanitarian grounds.”
Last week Niger said it would not send Saadi Qaddafi back home, while promising to respect its international commitments.
On a visit to Libya last Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was confident that Niger would live up to its commitments over Qaddafi loyalists.
Qaddafi's hometown Sirte
Sirte is Qaddafi’s hometown and one of just a handful of places in Libya still held by fighters loyal to him.
NTC forces have surrounded the city for a week, but say their progress has been stymied largely because there are many civilians still inside the city, where residents report shortages of basic goods.
Hundreds of civilians continued to pour out of the city on Thursday in cars and pickups loaded with mattresses and food as the former rebel fighters fired machine guns and incoming rockets crashed on the city’s outskirts.
“The situation isn’t great,” said one resident who did not give his name as he left the city, where he said Qaddafi’s forces were moving “like gangs” through the streets.
“There have been executions,” he said, naming two men who he said had been executed on Thursday. He also said he had witnessed executions in front of the house of a local family, whose name he gave as Safruny.
An NTC commander on the outskirts of Sirte, separately showed Reuters a handwritten list of families whose members were said to have been executed in Sirte. The list, which he said he compiled with information from people inside the city, included the Safruny family.
The commander gave his first name as Saleh but declined to give his family name. He said other attacks on suspected NTC sympathizers had been carried out.
“One man, they cut him like this,” Saleh said, dragging his finger from the ends of his mouth across his cheeks. “Another, they cut his lips.”
Humanitarian groups have expressed concern about the situation in Sirte, and the fears have been compounded by reports from NTC fighters who say their family members inside have been prevented from leaving.
Hafed Makhlouf, a resident of Misrata, said his nephew had been executed in Sirte after he was accused of helping the NTC forces.
He said he received the news from some of his family who were still inside the city and were trying to escape. “They’re afraid of coming out and being detected by the enemy and executed by them,” he said.
Other fighters from Misrata also said they had family stuck inside but had no way of communicating with them.
Misrata, a port city west of Sirte, withstood a devastating siege earlier in the Libyan civil war that killed more than 1,000 residents. Most of the fighters now surrounding Sirte have come from there.
The fleeing resident who did not give his name said families linked to Misrata had been targeted particularly by Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte.
Accounts from inside Sirte could not be independently verified as journalists have not been able to move beyond the outskirts of the city held by NTC forces.
A spokesman for Qaddafi, who contacted Reuters on Thursday, said it was the anti-Qaddafi forces, and NATO warplanes, which were killing people in Sirte, not the other way around.
“Between yesterday and this morning, 151 civilians were killed inside their homes as the Grad rockets and other explosives fell upon their heads,” the spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said in a satellite phone call to Reuters in Tunis.
“The city hospital stopped functioning altogether last night. Patients died simply because nothing can be done to help them.”