By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — A convoy of Libyan Army vehicles — said to be carrying gold and cash — has crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what reports suggest may be a dramatic, secretly negotiated bid by Muammar Qaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state.
Military sources from France and Niger confirmed that the convoy had crossed on September 5 into Niger, an impoverished and landlocked former French colony to the south of Libya.
The sources say the convoy was comprised of between 200 and 250 vehicles and was given an escort by fighters from the Touareg tribe — nomads who are spread across both sides of the Libya-Niger border.
The whereabouts of Qaddafi himself remain unknown. The 69-year-old ousted Libyan ruler has broadcast messages of defiance since being forced into hiding two weeks ago, and had previously vowed to die fighting on Libyan soil.
Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the ousted ruler, told reporters on September 5 that Qaddafi was still in Libya.
“The leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, is in excellent health and in high spirits,” Ibrahim said. “He is in Libya and well and in good health and is in a place that cannot be reached by those fractious groups.”
Ibrahim said on September 6 that the convoy was comprised of Libyan Army troops who had defected.
But French military sources say that if Qaddafi isn’t already in Niger with the convoy, they think he may try to join it later en route to neighboring Burkina Faso, which has offered him political asylum.
The convoy is thought to have crossed Libya’s southern desert to reach the border with Niger before moving on to the city of Agadez, the capital of a region in Niger that is dominated by members of the nomadic Touareg tribe.
Officials from Libya’s new interim government said that a convoy of vehicles carrying gold, as well as euros and U.S. dollars, had crossed from Libya into Niger late on September 5.
Negotiators from the National Transitional Council and tribal elders from Bani Walid meet in a mosque near the besieged city.
Fathis Baja, head of the National Transitional Council’s committee for political and international affairs, said members of the Touareg tribe helped at least 10 vehicles take the gold and cash into Niger from a branch of Libya’s central bank in Sirte, which is still controlled by Qaddafi loyalists.
It was not immediately clear whether they were referring to the same convoy or were describing a separate incident.
There is an airfield at Agadez that could allow Qaddafi and his family, or other members of the regime, to fly from Niger to a third country like Burkina Faso.
Journalists in Agadez report seeing about 50 Libyan Army vehicles moving on September 6 from Agadez toward Niger’s capital of Niamey, which is in the southwest of the country close to the border with Burkina Faso.
Reports say a clan leader from the Touareg tribe was traveling with the Libyan military convoy and is thought to have helped negotiate the crossing into Niger. Several of Qaddafi’s military generals also were reported to be in the convoy.
Back in Libya, thousands of anti-Qaddafi fighters are maintaining an encirclement around Bani Walid, a desert town about 140 kilometers southeast of Tripoli where pro-Qaddafi fighters have been fortifying themselves since they were pushed out of Tripoli in late August.
Jamal Bin Dellah, an anti-Qaddafi fighter who is among the troops that have surrounded Bani Walid, says he thinks rumors that Qaddafi has gone to Niger are accurate.
“I think this news is correct, because of the geography of this area,” he said. “It’s one of the few places he can go to. We hope he will be arrested. And if he has crossed into Niger, we feel sad for the people of Niger.”
Negotiators from the country’s new interim government — the National Transitional Council — met with tribal elders from Bani Walid in an area to the north that is controlled by anti-Qaddafi forces.
There were reports that a deal aimed at averting a battle at Bani Walid had been reached by negotiators. But officials from the National Transitional Council say they have not yet formalized the agreement and were waiting for a signal from elders in Bani Walid that would allow them to peacefully enter the town.
The tribal leaders who attended the talks outside of Bani Walid represent the five main clans in the town, which is the home base for one of Libya’s biggest tribes, the Warfalla tribe.
About 1 million Libyans, or about one-sixth of the country’s population, are members of the Warfalla tribe. Both pro-Qaddafi and anti-Qaddafi forces have members of the Warfalla tribe.
The anti-Qaddafi fighters now surrounding Bani Walid have shown a willingness to be patient in hopes of avoiding a bitter inter-clan fight that could create lasting divisions.
Pro-Qaddafi fighters also are surrounded at the coastal city of Sirte which, like other pro-Qaddafi strongholds, has been given an ultimatum to surrender by September 10 or face a full military assault.