Convoy fuels speculation over Gaddafi whereabouts
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A heavily armed convoy of Libyan troops and Tuareg rebels loyal to Muammar Gaddafi entered the town of Agadez in Niger on Tuesday, military sources said. Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said the fugitive former strongman was not on board.
AFP - Libya's new authorities launched a fresh bid Tuesday to stave off a battle in Bani Walid, one of Moamer Kadhafi's last bastions, as Niger denied the toppled strongman fled across its border.
Representatives of the new leadership expressed optimism about talks to end a standoff over the oasis town, which was encircled by anti-Kadhafi forces last week, after the negotiations for its surrender collapsed on Sunday.
"The result of these talks is that our colleagues from Bani Walid met us and were reassured that we do not mean them harm and we will preserve their lives," said Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator of the National Transitional Council.
But later a military commander said pro-Kadhafi forces had prevented Bani Walid elders from returning home following the talks, adding that this was a worrisome move that could mean a battle was necessary to free the oasis town.
"Armed groups stopped them at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Bani Walid and prevented them from delivering the truce to people under threat of death," Colonel Abdullah Abu Asara told AFP.
"I think there will be a fierce battle in Bani Walid. Armed groups are occupying Bani Walid so we must free it," he said, as witnesses reported seeing the elders heading north away from the town towards Tarhuna.
Chief negotiator Kenshil was not immediately available for comment.
The gathering at a mosque in Wishtata village, on the outskirts of the besieged town, started and ended with prayers and celebratory gunfire.
As the tensions eased, rumours swirled that Kadhafi had fled to neighbouring Niger following reports that a convoy of up to 200 vehicles had crossed from Libya.
The convoy drove through the city of Agadez, a stronghold of the former Tuareg rebellion the ousted Libyan leader once supported, a Niger military source said on condition of anonymity.
"I saw an exceptionally large and rare convoy of several dozen vehicles enter Agadez from Arlit... and go towards Niamey," the source said.
"There are persistent rumours that Kadhafi or one of his sons are travelling in the convoy," the source said, adding the convoy included civilian and military vehicles.
Tripoli's new rulers confirmed it knew of a convoy crossing into Niger.
"We can confirm that around 200 cars crossed from Libya to Niger, but we can't confirm who was in this convoy," Jalal al-Gallal, the NTC spokesman in the Libyan capital, told AFP.
Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum was adamant the ousted Libyan leader was not in the convoy.
"It is not true, it is not Kadhafi and I do not think the convoy was of the size attributed to it," he told AFP by phone from Algiers.
"The truth is that several people, of varying importance, arrived in Niger. That's it, there are no high-profile figures, certainly not Kadhafi himself nor any of his sons," Bazoum said.
"Kadhafi in Niger could cause some problems," he said when asked if Niger would welcome him. Bazoum said the only officials in the convoy were Libyan TV executives.
Neighbouring Burkina Faso, another regime with close ties to Kadhafi which has not ruled out offering him shelter, was evasive when asked about reports the convoy was heading to Ouagadougou.
"We have no such information at the moment. Obviously, if they cross our border, we will find out... We are simply going to monitor the situation throughout the day," a government official said.
France, too, said it has no information to suggest Kadhafi had entered Niger.
On Monday Kadhafi's spokesman Mussa Ibrahim insisted his boss was still in Libya, in "excellent health" and ready with his sons to fight to the death.
"He is in a place that those scums did not reach. He is fighting inside Libya," Ibrahim told Syria's Arrai television.
"We are still powerful," said Ibrahim, who is thought to be in Bani Walid with two of Kadhafi's sons, Saadi and Mutassim.
Local officials said most senior figures had fled Bani Walid with Kadhafi's most prominent son, Seif al-Islam, and headed to the oasis city of Sabha in the deep south.
Those at Tuesday's meeting on Bani Walid were reassured by NTC number two Mahmud Jibril that "no one will be mistreated" if they put down their arms.
"God willing, the negotiations will be successful," he said, calling the talks "an historic opportunity for Bani Walid and the Warfalla tribe" that dominates the region.
Representatives of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, urged Libya's new leaders to declare a general amnesty, saying the Wishtata meeting had cleared the suspicions of its people.
"We are here to spare bloodshed," a Bani Walid leader, Sheikh Abdel Qadir Mayad, told the gathering, even as NTC fighters took up forward positions ready to storm the town.
"Bani Walid has reached the stage where they realise the previous system is over. Bani Walid is with Libya, it is not an exception," said the sheikh.
An AFP correspondent said forces of the new regime on Tuesday disarmed the pro-Kadhafi Hossnia tribe, seizing 150 light weapons, in a dawn operation launched from the Umm Khunfis frontline some 100 kilometres (62 miles) east of the ousted strongman's hometown of Sirte.
NATO said its warplanes had on Monday bombed a military radar site, a command and control bunker, four armed vehicles, for surface to air missile systems and two "military settlements" in and around the town which remains in the hands of pro-Kadhafi forces.