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Gadhafi spokesman: Toppled Libyan leader resolute, even as forces desert
TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) ' Moammar Gadhafi is determined to fight his way back to power, the toppled dictator's spokesman said Tuesday, but a large convoy of his soldiers has apparently deserted, crossing the Libyan desert into neighboring Niger.
Also Tuesday, tribal elders in a Gadhafi stronghold were trying to persuade regime loyalists holed up inside to lay down their arms, a rebel negotiator said.
Still, Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant.
Gadhafi is "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya," Ibrahim told the Syrian TV station al-Rai, adding that both Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," Ibrahim said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO."
Gadhafi loyalists have been holed up in several towns, including Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town, as rebel leaders tried to negotiate a surrender deal.
Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kanshil said Tuesday that tribal elders want assurances that the rebels will not take revenge, and are trying to persuade Gadhafi loyalists to lay down their arms.
Late Monday, a large convoy of Gadhafi loyalists crossed into Niger and rolled into the frontier town of Agadez, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the local newspaper. The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Harouna, who saw them arrive.
At the head of the convoy, he said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Gadhafi.
It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Gadhafi family or other high-level members of his regime.
The toppled Libyan leader is known to have used battalions of Tuareg fighters who have long-standing ties to Gadhafi. His regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Gadhafi.
Gadhafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, where a majority of the population is Tuareg and where the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy. The Sahara Desert market town is the largest city in northern Niger.
Harouna says the pro-Gadhafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit.
The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
A rebel spokesman for Tripoli's military council said the rebel 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.
Most of the action in the past six months has been confined to about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Libya's Mediterranean coastline, which is where NATO aircraft concentrate their air surveillance.
NATO reported bombing several sites overnight near Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a region NATO has targeted heavily every day in recent days.
Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but speculation has centered on Sirte and the other loyalist holdouts of Sabha in the far south and Bani Walid.
The rebels hold most of Libya and have sketched out plans for a transition to democratic rule that would begin with a "declaration of liberation" that was likely to come before Gadhafi's strongholds are defeated and he is captured.
After the declaration, Libya's transitional council would have eight months to arrange a vote for a national assembly.
"When the clock starts ticking on those eight months remains to be seen," rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said Monday, adding it wasn't yet clear how liberation would be defined.
Associated Press writers Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Karin Laub in Tripoli contributed to this report.