Security chief and other loyalists of Moammar Qaddafi, have on Tuesday fled into neighboring Niger in multiple convoys across hundreds of miles of desert.
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.
The country’s de facto rulers, who were Libya’s former rebels, claimed the convoys were a major flight by Qaddafi’s most hardcore backers from his final strongholds.
Niger’s Foreign Minister, Bazoum Mohamed said Mansour Dao, Qaddafi’s security chief, and 12 other officials of Qaddafi’s regime were in the convoys but Qaddafi himself was found there.
Three major cities; Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha, remain under Qaddafi’s sway. The anti-Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi, and with a hard core of former regime figures forcing the towns to dig in.
A spokesman for Tripoli’s new military council, Anis Sharif said, “It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort.”
Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi’s inner circle.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the NTC, said he had reports from witnesses inside the city that a convoy of cars belonging to Qaddafi’s son Moatassim had left Sirte, heading south toward the Niger border, after they were loaded with cash and gold from the city’s Central Bank branch.
He said there were negotiations Tuesday with tribes in Sirte for the handover of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast 250 miles southeast of Tripoli. Fadl-Allah Haroun, a commander in Benghazi where the NTC remains based, also said there were talks with Sirte residence and that he had reports of as many as 250 vehicles in fleeing convoys.
Recently, some members of Qaddafi’s family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons sought refuge in Algeria.