Hundreds of Libyan army vehicles have crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what may be a dramatic, secretly negotiated bid by Moammar Gadhafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters Tuesday morning.
The convoy of 200 to 250 vehicles was given an escort by the army of Niger, an impoverished and landlocked former French colony to the south of Libya, and might, according to a French military source, be joined by Gadhafi en route for neighboring Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum.
It was not clear where the ousted dictator was. He has broadcast defiance since being forced into hiding two weeks ago, and has previously vowed to die fighting on Libyan soil.
Gadhafi's son and presumed heir Saif al-Islam also was considering joining the convoy, the French source added. France played a leading role in the war against Gadhafi and such a large Libyan military convoy could hardly have moved safely without the knowledge and agreement of NATO air forces.
Sources told Reuters that France may have brokered an arrangement between the new Libyan government and Gadhafi.
But a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in Paris could not confirm the report of the convoy's arrival in the northern Niger desert city of Agadez nor any offer to Gadhafi, who with Saif al-Islam is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
The sources said the convoy, probably including officers from army units based in the south of Libya, may have looped through Algeria rather than crossing the Libyan-Niger frontier directly. It arrived late Monday near the northern city of Agadez. Algeria last week took in Gadhafi's wife, daughter and two other sons, angering the rebels who ended his 42-year rule.
If Niger were to harbor Gadhafi regime leaders it would be “a breach of the United Nations travel [restrictions] for most of these people,” Aly Abuzaakouk, executive director of the Libya Human and Political Development Forum, told Al Jazeera. He said Niger should not side with the enemy of the Libyan people.
NATO warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft have been scouring Libya's deserts for large convoys of vehicles that may be carrying the Gadhafis, making it unlikely that it could have crossed the border without some form of deal being struck.
Libya's new rulers have said they want to try Gadhafi before, possibly, handing him over to the ICC, which has charged him with crimes against humanity.
Earlier Monday, Gadhafi's fugitive spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said he was in good health and good spirits somewhere in Libya. Moammar Gadhafi is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits, Ibrahim said in remarks broadcast on television.
He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya, Ibrahim told Arrai TV.
The head of Gadhafi's security brigades, Mansour Dhao, along with more than 10 other Libyans, crossed into Niger on Sunday, two Niger officials had said earlier on Monday.
The French military source said he had been told the commander of Libya's southern forces, Gen. Ali Khana, may also be in Niger, not far from the Libyan border.
He said he had been told that the Gadhafis would join Khana and catch up with the convoy should they choose to accept Burkina Faso's offer of exile.
Burkina Faso, also once a French colony and a former recipient of large amounts of Libyan aid, offered Gadhafi exile about two weeks ago but has also recognized the rebel National Transitional Council as Libya's government.
Burkinabe Foreign Minister Yipene Djibril Bassolet said that Gadhafi could go into exile in his country even though it is a signatory of the ICC treaty.
Last week, a senior NTC military commander said he believed Gadhafi was in Bani Walid, 150 km south of Tripoli, along with Saif al-Islam. Libyan forces have massed outside the town -- which has refused to surrender -- building a field hospital in preparation for a possible last stand.
Some NTC officials said they had information that Saif al-Islam had fled Bani Walid on Saturday for the southern deserts that lead to the Niger and Algerian borders.
On-off talks involving tribal elders from Bani Walid and a fog of contradictory messages in recent days, have reflected the complexities of dismantling the remnants of Gadhafi's rule and building a new political system.
At a military checkpoint some 60 km (40 miles) north of the town on the road to the capital, Abdallah Kanshil, who is running talks for the interim government, told journalists a peaceful handover was coming soon. Nevertheless, a dozen vehicles carrying NTC fighters arrived at the checkpoint.
The surrender of the city is imminent, he said on Monday. It is a matter of avoiding civilian casualties. Some snipers have surrendered their weapons ... Our forces are ready.
Similar statements have been made for days, however. With communications cut, there was no word from inside Bani Walid.
But 20 km closer to the town, NTC forces built a field hospital and installed 10 volunteer doctors to prepare for the possibility that Gadhafi loyalists would not give up.
The presence of pro-Gadhafi forces in Bani Walid is the main problem. This is their last fight, said Mohamed Bin Dalla, one of the doctors. If Bani Walid is resolved peacefully then other remaining conflicts will be also be resolved peacefully.
NTC forces are also trying to squeeze Gadhafi loyalists out of his home town of Sirte, on the coast, and a swathe of territory in the desert.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Alex Dziadosz in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuff, Emma Farge in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Barry Malone and Alastair Macdonald in Tunis, Sami Aboudi, Amena Bakr and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Abdoulaye Massalatchi and Nathalie Prevost in Agadez and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Michael Roddy)