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Libyan army convoy in Niger may be Gaddafi deal

Sep 5, 2011, 11:34 p.m.
Anti-Gaddafi forces move their tanks towards the front line from Al-Noflea, the closest area to the city of Sirte, 450 km (279.6 miles) west of Benghazi, towards Om El Khanfousa September 5, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

By Christian Lowe

TRIPOLI/AGADEZ, Niger (Reuters) - Scores of Libyan army vehicles have crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what may be a dramatic, secretly negotiated bid by Muammar Gaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters on Tuesday.

Several hours later, Al Jazeera television reported that rebels had struck a deal with delegates from the Gaddafi holdout town of Bani Walid, 150 km (90 miles) south of Tripoli, to enter it without fighting later on Tuesday.

The pan-Arab news channel, citing the anti-Gaddafi forces, said the fighters were expected to enter the town after the deal is formalized, which would likely be around midday.

Bani Walid has been one of the main remaining pockets of Gaddafi resistance in the country.

The convoy of between 200 and 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 Gaddafi en route for neighboring Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum.

It was not clear where the 69-year-old former leader was. He has broadcast defiance since being forced into hiding two weeks ago, and has previously vowed to die fighting on Libyan soil.

Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, the heir apparent before the uprising which ended his father's 42 years of personal rule two weeks ago, also was considering joining the convoy, the French source added. France played a leading role in the war against Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi.

But a spokesperson for the French 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 Gaddafi, who with Saif al-Islam is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Officials in other Western governments and in Libya's new ruling council were not immediately available for comment.

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 on Monday near the northern city of Agadez. Algeria last week took in Gaddafi's wife, daughter and two other sons, angering the rebels who ended his 42-year rule.

"HIGH SPIRITS"

NATO warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft have been scouring Libya's deserts for large convoys of vehicles that may be carrying the other Gaddafis, 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 Gaddafi before, possibly, handing him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has charged him with crimes against humanity.

Gaddafi's fugitive spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said on Monday that the former ruler was in good health and good spirits somewhere in Libya. "Muammar Gaddafi is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits," Ibrahim said in remarks broadcast on television.

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