Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, fearing for his life if captured in Libya, has tried to arrange for an aircraft to fly him out of his desert refuge and into the custody of The Hague war crimes court, a senior Libyan official said Thursday.

Details were sketchy but a picture has built up since his father's killing while in the hands of ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters a week ago that suggests Muammar Gaddafi's 39-year-old heir-apparent has taken refuge among Sahara nomads and is seeking a safe haven abroad.

The NTC official said Saif al-Islam had crossed into Niger but had not yet found a way to hand himself in to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

There is a contact with Mali and with South Africa and with another neighbouring country to organise his exit ... He hasn't got confirmation yet, he's still waiting, said the official, who declined to be named.

There was no independent verification of his comments.

Even if Saif can still draw on some of the vast fortune the Gaddafi clan built up abroad during 42 years in control of North Africa's main oilfields, his indictment by the ICC over his part in trying to crush this year's revolt limits his options.

That may explain an apparent willingness, in communications monitored by intelligence services and shared with Libya's interim rulers, to discuss a surrender to the ICC, whereas his mother and surviving siblings simply fled to Algeria and Niger.

ICC CHECKING

The ICC, which relies on signatory states to hand over suspects, said it was trying to confirm the whereabouts and intentions of Saif al-Islam and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, the third man indicted along with Muammar Gaddafi.

A source with the NTC, which drove the Gaddafis from power in Tripoli in August, told Reuters the two surviving indictees were together, protected by Tuareg nomads.

Saif is concerned about his safety, the source said. He believes handing himself over is the best option for him.

Saif al-Islam, once seen as a potential liberal reformer but who adopted a belligerent, win-or-die persona at his father's side this year, was looking for help from abroad to fly out and take his chances at The Hague, where there is no death penalty.

He wants to be sent an aircraft. He wants assurances, the NTC source said by telephone from Libya.

Some observers question the accuracy of NTC information, given frequent lapses in intelligence recently.

Rhissa Ag Boula, a former Tuareg rebel leader who is now a presidential adviser in Niger, told Reuters: I confirm that Abdullah al-Senussi is now in northern Mali. He crossed Niger north of Arlit escorted by Malian Tuareg as well as some from Niger. They were well protected, which is to say armed.

As for Saif, he is hesitant and is indeed in Niger. He is trying to decide whether to continue to Mali or stay in Niger.

A member of the Malian parliament who has been in charge of relations with Libya's NTC discounted some reports that Gaddafi and Senussi had crossed Algeria or Niger into Mali.

AFRICAN GRUMBLES

Some observers suggest surrendering to the ICC may be only one option for Saif al-Islam, who may hope for a welcome in one of the African states on which his father lavished gifts.

The African Union, and powerful members like South Africa, grumble about the nine-year-old ICC's focus so far on Africans and some of them may prove sympathetic.

Even if arrested on charges relating to his role in attacks on protesters in February and March, Saif could make defence arguments that might limit any sentence, lawyers said.

NTC forces, which overran Gaddafi's last bastions of Bani Walid and Sirte this month, lack the resources to hunt and capture fugitives deep in the desert, the NTC source said.

NATO, whose air power turned the civil war in the rebels' favour, could help, he said.

But NATO, which will end its Libya operations at the end of the month, stresses its mission is to protect civilians, not target individuals - though it was a NATO air strike that halted Muammar Gaddafi's flight last week.

A captured pro-Gaddafi fighter at Bani Walid told Reuters that the London-educated Saif al-Islam had been in that town, south of Tripoli until it fell earlier this month.

The man, one of Saif al-Islam's bodyguards, said the younger Gaddafi was confused and in fear for his life when he escaped Bani Walid. If he has seen the gruesome video footage of his father's capture, he knows how he may be treated if he remains in Libya.

Asked what the NTC was doing to cooperate with the ICC, the vice chairman of the Council, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, said Libyans still hoped to try the suspects themselves.

There aren't any special arrangements by the NTC. If Abdullah al-Senussi and Saif al-Islam are arrested inside Libya they will be tried and judged based on Libyan law, said Ghoga.

Earlier this week, an NTC official said Saif had acquired a passport in a false name and was lying low south of Ghat, a border crossing with Algeria through which his mother, sister and two of his surviving brothers fled in August.

Algeria is not a signatory to the Rome treaty which set up the ICC, but might face strong diplomatic pressure to hand over indicted suspects. The NTC has also been pressing Algiers to hand over the other Gaddafi relatives.

Niger, an impoverished former French colony, has said it would honour its commitments to the ICC. The mayor of the northern Niger town of Agadez, a transit point for other fleeing Gaddafi allies, told Reuters Saif al-Islam would be extradited to The Hague if he showed up.

Tunisia, to where other Gaddafi loyalists have fled, is also a signatory to the ICC's conventions.

(Additional reporting by Giles Elgood, Peter Apps and Alastair Macdonald in London, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam, Mark John in Dakar, Nicholas Vinocur in Paris, Waleed Ibrahim and Jim Loney in Baghdad, Brian Rohan in Benghazi, Barry Malone and Maria Golovnina in Tripoli and Ibrahim Diallo in Agadez, Niger; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Tim Pearce and Ralph Gowling)