Moammar Gadhafi is believed to be hiding near the southwestern town of Ghadamis near the Algerian border under the protection of Tuareg tribesmen, a senior Libyan military official said.

One tribe, the Tuareg, is still supporting him and he is believed to be in the Ghadamis area in the south, Hisham Buhagiar, a senior military official of the Libya's new leadership, told Reuters by telephone late Tuesday.

Buhagiar, coordinator of the hunt for Gadhafi, said the ousted dictator was believed to have been in the southern town of Samnu a week ago before moving to Ghadamis, which lies 550 km (345 miles) southwest of Tripoli.

He said Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam was in Bani Walid and another son, Mutassem, was in Sirte, the family's home town.

They are both thinking about leaving Libya, maybe to Niger, Buhagiar added.

Sirte, one of the last bastions of support for Gadhafi, is encircled by forces of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council and under bombardment from NATO warplanes.

Taking Sirte, 450 km east of Tripoli, would bring the NTC closer to gaining control of the whole country, a goal that has eluded it more than a month after its fighters seized the capital.

Buhagiar said most tribes in the south were against Gadhafi except for the Tuareg, who still supported him.

There has been a fight between Tuareg tribesmen who are loyal to Gadhafi and Arabs living there (in the south). We are negotiating. The Gaddafi search is taking a different course, Buhagiar said, without elaborating.

Gaddafi's daughter Aisha, her brothers Hannibal and Mohammed, their mother Safia and several other family members fled to Algeria in August and have lived there since.