Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Washington—
More than a dozen high-ranking loyalists of Moammar Kadafi made a desert getaway into neighboring Niger, US officials said Tuesday, but there was no indication that the former Libyan leader or his sons had escaped.
"We're confident that Kadafi didn't get out," said Jalal Gallal, a spokesman for Libya's transitional government.
News that as many as 250 vehicles carrying members of Kadafi's inner circle, including his security chief, had crossed Monday into Niger added a dramatic twist to the manhunt for the strongman who ruled Libya for more than four decades.
However, the Associated Press reported late Tuesday that a spokesman for Niger's president said that only three cars had crossed into Niger, ferrying one member of Kadafi's inner circle. There was no immediate explanation for the contradictory versions.
Amid reports of other convoys carrying looted gold and cash, the Obama administration urged Niger to detain any wanted Libyan officials, confiscate their weapons and impound any Libyan government property, including money, jewels and other valuables.
Officials in Niger, an impoverished former French colony just south of Libya, have indicated that they want "to be responsive to the international community … and maintain a good working relationship" with the new Libyan rebel leadership, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Rumors swirled in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, of a clandestine effort by Kadafi, who dubbed himself the "king of kings of Africa," to seek a haven in one of the many African states upon which he lavished largesse during his rule.
Reports that a massive loyalist convoy had traversed a broad swath of the Sahara fueled suspicion that some kind of secret deal had been cut to allow Kadafi to slip away. But officials of various countries and the leaders of Libya's rebel government denied any pact to accommodate Kadafi, who is wanted by both the Libyans and the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
Rebel authorities in Libya have said repeatedly that they believe Kadafi remains in the country and that capturing him and putting him and his sons on trial is a priority.
Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose aircraft patrol Libyan airspace and keep a close eye on its territory, said stalking Kadafi was not its job.
"Our mission is to protect the civilian population in Libya, not to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime members, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people," Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, said in a statement, Reuters reported.
Among the high-level Kadafi associates who were believed to have escaped to Niger were Mansour Dao, the deposed leader's security chief, officials said.
"The ship is sinking, and these people are abandoning ship," said Gallal, the rebel spokesman.
Although Reuters cited "military sources" as saying that Niger army personnel had escorted a convoy of more than 200 vehicles to the northern city of Agadez, the Associated Press later quoted a Niger government official as saying that witnesses had probably mistaken a Niger convoy that escorted the Libyan vehicles as an all-Libyan fleet.
But the State Department said it had been informed by Niger that the vehicles had carried more than a dozen senior members of Kadafi's military staff. US officials believe that Kadafi remains in Libya, spokeswoman Nuland said, and there was no evidence that any members of his family had escaped to Niger.
Last month, Kadafi's wife, daughter, two of his sons and several grandchildren fled to neighboring Algeria, angering Libya's interim leaders.
Although rebels have captured Tripoli and much of the nation, several areas in Libya remain loyal to Kadafi, including swaths of the desert south that border sub-Saharan African states.
On Tuesday, new talks between the insurgent administration and Kadafi loyalists failed to reach an accord that would allow a rebel takeover of Bani Walid, a strategic town 90 miles southeast of Tripoli that remains in Kadafi's camp. Some rumors have indicated that Kadafi and his sons fled to Bani Walid.
The rebel leadership has said it would prefer to arrange a surrender of Bani Walid and other loyalist areas, including the coastal city of Surt, Kadafi's birthplace, but that insurgent forces would attack Kadafi strongholds if no agreement could be worked out.
Libya's interim administration is eager to consolidate control and begin the task of forming a new government to run the oil-rich North African nation.
McDonnell reported from Tripoli and Richter from Washington.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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