Niger, the West African nation where Libya's fugitive Saif al-Islam Gaddafi may be headed, risks a backlash from nomad Tuaregs in its north if it follows through on its obligation to hand him over to the International Criminal Court.
Libya's aid-reliant southern neighbour has vowed to respect commitments to the ICC, but knows that could spark unrest in Saharan areas where a string of past rebellions against the capital were nurtured by Muammar Gaddafi, feted by many in the desert as a hero.
The Hague-based ICC said Gaddafi's 39-year-old son Saif al-Islam was in contact via intermediaries about surrendering for trial, but it also had information that mercenaries were trying to spirit him to a friendly African nation.
Libyan officials and others involved in the situation have said Saif al-Islam was apparently anxious not to be captured by Libyan interim government forces in whose hands his father Muammar Gaddafi was killed more than a week ago.
Niger has declined to comment on statements this past week from local leaders in its remote north that Saif al-Islam was most likely already on its side of the mountain range that straddles its porous border with Algeria and Mali.
A senior official for the northern region of Agadez, which has been a way station for Libyan fugitives including another Gaddafi son Saadi, said on Saturday it had hosted U.S. military representatives for talks on security.
The official, who requested anonymity, declined to say what the talks with the Americans were specifically about, but spoke of escape plans by Saif al-Islam and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, both wanted by the ICC for war crimes.
Senussi is being extricated from Mali towards a country that is a non-signatory to the (ICC) convention. I am certain that they will both (Senussi and Saif al-Islam) be extricated by plane, one from Mali, the other from Niger, said the official.
He said there were at least 10 airstrips in the north of Niger near the Libyan border that could be used to whisk Saif al-Islam out of the country.
A member of parliament from northern Mali, Ibrahim Assaleh Ag Mohamed, denied Senussi was in his country and said neither he nor Saif al-Islam would be accepted if they tried to enter.
HELP FROM MERCENARIES
Niger like Mali has signed up to the ICC's statute, but handing over Saif al-Islam would spark anger among northerners who feel remote from the capital Niamey and have long espoused Gaddafi's vision of a cross-border Saharan people.
We are ready to hide him wherever needed, Mouddour Barka, a resident of Agadez town, told Reuters.
We are telling the international community to stay out of this business and our own authorities not to hand him over -- otherwise we are ready to go out onto the streets and they will have us to deal with, he added.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters in an interview that communication with Saif al-Islam was being made possible by intermediaries, despite his remote location.
There are some people connected with him that are in touch with people connected with us, he said on a visit to Beijing.
We have some information that there is a mercenary group trying to help him to move to a different country, so we are trying to prevent this activity, said Moreno-Ocampo, adding: Some of them are South Africans allegedly.
The Gaddafis befriended desert tribes in Niger, Mali and other poor former French colonies in West Africa. Other African countries received Libyan largesse during the 42-year rule of Gaddafi, a self-styled African king of kings.
France, a backer of February's revolt against Gaddafi, reminded African states of their obligations to hand Saif al-Islam over to the international court.
We don't care whether he goes on foot, by plane, by boat, by car or on a camel, the only thing that matters is that he belongs in the ICC, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, a swathe of arid states to the south of Libya, are all signatories to the treaty that set up the ICC. Algeria, which took in Saif al-Islam's mother, sister, brother Hannibal and half-brother Mohammed, is not a signatory. Nor is Sudan or Zimbabwe.
Saif al-Islam was once seen as a liberal reformer, architect of a rapprochement with Western states on whom his father waged proxy guerrilla wars for decades. But he responded with belligerent rhetoric after the revolt erupted in Libya.
The ICC accuses him of hiring mercenaries to carry out a plan, worked out with his father and Senussi, to kill unarmed protesters inspired by Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere.
(Additional reporting by Barry Malone in Tripoli, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Sara Webb and Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam, Samia Nakhoul in London, Ibrahim Diallo in Agadez; Editing by Ralph Gowling)