Armed loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi, including his security chief, fled into neighboring Niger in multiple convoys across hundreds of miles of desert on Tuesday. Libya's former rebels — now the country's de facto rulers — claimed the convoys were a major flight by Gadhafi's most hardcore backers from his final strongholds.
The claims could not immediately be confirmed. Information on the size of the convoys and who was in them was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of Sahara — over 1,000 miles — between any populated areas on the two sides of the border.
But as the first group of a dozen vehicles pulled into Niger's capital Niamey on Tuesday, a customs official confirmed that it included Mansour Dao, Gadhafi's security chief and a key member of his inner circle, as well as around 12 other Gadhafi regime officials. The official, Harouna Ide, told The Associated Press that other Libyan convoys had passed through Agadez, a town about halfway between Niger's border with Libya and its capital in the far southwest.
Gadhafi himself is not in the convoys, Niger's Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed said, according to Al-Arabiya television.
A significant flight by Gadhafi's senior regime figures could bring an important shift as the opposition forces that swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and toppled the longtime leader struggle to shut down the last holdouts of his supporters.
Three major cities remain under Gadhafi's sway — Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. The anti-Gadhafi leadership has been negotiating with tribal leaders in Bani Walid to try to arrange a peaceful entry of its forces into the city, but talks have made little headway amid deep suspicions between the two sides. Opposition officials have depicted the populations in Bani Walid and the other towns as divided, with some prepared to surrender, some still backing Gadhafi, and with a hard core of former regime figures forcing the towns to dig in.
If those hardcore figures flee in large numbers, it could reduce backing for Gadhafi among residents and open the door for an end to the standoff. Before news of the convoys emerged, Col. Abdullah Hussein Salem, who is involved in the military negotiations and coordination for entering Bani Walid, said one of the options in the negotiations is to allow the Gadhafi supporters to get out of the town, without a chase.
Still, it remained unknown if the convoys represented such a major move to escape. A spokesman for Tripoli's new military council said the leadership was aware of the convoy but had few details. "It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort," Anis Sharif said.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance did not have any immediate information about the convoy.
NATO warplanes don't normally patrol that deep south in the Sahara, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing alliance policy.
Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant in a Tuesday phone call to the Syrian TV station al-Rai, saying the ousted leader was "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya." Ibrahim, who the rebels believe was in Bani Walid, said both Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," he said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO," he said, though the regime effectively collapsed more than a week ago.
But many in the new leadership depicted the move as a significant run for the border by Gadhafi's inner circle.
Guma El-Gamaty, a British-based spokesman for the National Transitional Council — the de facto government — said the convoys included "the heavyweight political, military and media officials and officers" and described them as " a turning point" that could lead to the handover of Bani Walid and Sirte.
A representative of Sirte in the NTC, Hassan Droua, said he had reports from witnesses inside the city that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi's son Moatassim had left Sirte, heading south toward the Niger border, after they were loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Droua said there were negotiations Tuesday with tribes in Sirte for the handover of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Fadl-Allah Haroun, a commander in Benghazi where the NTC remains based, also said there were talks with Sirte residence and that he had reports of as many as 250 vehicles in fleeing convoys.
Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Negotiators met Tuesday with tribal elders from Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, in talks that showed little progress and underlined the deep mistrust between the two sides.
"The revolutionaries have not come to humiliate anyone. We are all here to listen," Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator, said at the start of the meeting. Then, in a message clearly intended for the hardcore Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, some of whom may be fearing rebel retribution, he added: "I say we are not like the old regime. We don't take revenge and we don't bear grudges."
But the tribal elders said the city of 100,000 was swirling with rumors that the fighters would pillage. "There are youth who were fooled by a heavy media campaign. They carry weapons and they heard that the rebels want to rape their women and kill them," said one tribal elder, Moftah al-Rubassi.
After the session, held at a mosque in the desert outside the city, the elders returned to Bani Walid to discuss the results with residents.
In Tripoli, the new leadership's fighters seized Khalid Kaim, Gadhafi's deputy foreign minister, at his home on Monday, another official, Khaled al-Zintani, said.
A video, posted on rebels' Facebook pages, showed Kaim in a white robe sitting on a bed, with young men shouting at him.
"You are a dog," yelled the rebels, some of them in military uniform. "But we will treat you in a good way," one added.
He responded by saying: "I swear to God, I had good intentions."