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Gadhafi security chief, other loyalists flee Libya, raising hope support crumbling
TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) ' Convoys of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara Desert into neighboring Niger on Tuesday in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could undermine the ousted leader's support in his last strongholds in the country and help lead to their surrender.
Still, efforts to negotiate the peaceful handover of one of the most crucial of those strongholds, the city of Bani Walid, proved difficult.
Tribal elders from Bani Walid who met Tuesday with former rebels were met by angry residents of the city, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired in the air to intimidate them, sending them fleeing, mediators said. The round of talks illustrated how many in Bani Walid remain deeply mistrustful of the forces that have seized power in the country and reluctant to accept their rule, even beyond a simple loyalty to the ousted leader.
The scope of the flight to Niger was not immediately clear. Some former rebels depicted it as a major exodus of Gadhafi's most hardcore backers. But information on the number and identity of those fleeing was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of desert ' over 1,000 miles ' between any populated areas on the two sides of the Libya-Niger border.
Gadhafi himself is not in the convoys, the U.S. State Department said.
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.
The convoys included heavily armed contingents of Tuareg tribal fighters from Niger, who have been long enlisted by Gadhafi's regime, Niger officials said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has urged Niger to detain any individuals who may be subject to prosecution in Libya; confiscate the weapons; and impound any state property such as money or jewels that were illegally taken out of the country.
Nuland said some senior members of the Gadhafi regime were in the fleeing group, but not Gadhafi or members of his family.
The West African nation of Burkino Faso, which neighbors Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month, raising speculation the convoys were part of plan to arrange passage there for the ousted leader. But on Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating that if he came there he would be arrested.
A significant move to escape by the top echelons of Gadhafi's military and security services could bring an important shift in Libya.
The Gadhafi opponents who toppled his regime by sweeping into Tripoli just over two weeks ago have been struggling to uproot the last bastions of his support, particularly in Bani Walid, Sirte and the southern city of Sabha. They say residents in those cities have in part been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Gadhafi rule in part because of former regime figures in their midst.
But residents of the holdout cities have a complex mix of motives.
Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their families' homes demolished, their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other parts of Warfala to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.
That history gives many in the tribe a strong pride in an oddly contradictory legacy, as both early opponents to the regime and, as they see it, an entitled part of Libya's leadership.
The dusty city of 100,000, strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valley irrigated with farms, lies on roads connecting Sirte and Sabha. As the Warfala in Bani Walid go, so are their tribal brethren in those two cities likely to turn.
Mohammed bin Masoud, a resident who was asked by the former rebels to help arrange talks with city leaders, dismissed the idea that pro-Gadhafi sentiment was strong. Instead, many just don't like the rebels, seeing them as upstarts who opened the door to NATO intervention.
"This revolution began with Libyans asking for a better chance at life, then it took a military turn and NATO was brought in," he said. "I know kids who are willing to fight the rebels inside Bani Walid because they don't want to be forced into accepting them."
Former rebel forces have been on the outskirts of Bani Walid for days, effectively sealing it off. But they have been reluctant to try to storm it, saying they don't want to fuel a cycle of violence and would rather see a peaceful resolution ' though some in their ranks are threatening to attack.
On Tuesday, at a mosque on a desert highway outside Bani Walid, envoys from the new leadership met with tribal elders from the city, trying to negotiate a peaceful entry by their forces. The elders said residents are refusing to surrender because of widespread fears that entering fighters will retaliate for past Gadhafi support, raping women and killing men.
The envoys promised their fighters would be peaceful, without a shot fired, and held out the prospect of rebuilding damaged infrastructure in the city, including communications and electricity.
"We are not like the old regime. We don't take revenge and we don't bear grudges," chief negotiator Abdullah Kenshil told the elders.
But when the elders returned to Bani Walid to deliver the promises, they were met by the gun-firing crowd.
The tribal elders who participated "don't represent all the tribes in Bani Walid," said al-Mubarak al-Saleh, a representative from Bani Walid on the National Transitional Council, the rebels' leadership group that is the closest thing to a government in Libya now. "There are still pockets of Gadhafi supporters and allied tribes."
Bin Masoud said a more representative delegation of elders had been due to meet the former rebels on Monday but then felt insulted by what they saw as an arrogant attitude and left the meeting.
Also, many in the city see little weight in promises of a peaceful entry. The former rebel forces can be notoriously undisciplined, and even celebratory firing in the air ' something fighters have a hard time resisting squeezing off ' could potentially spark a gunbattle.
Bin Masoud was doubtful a handover can go entirely without friction.
"There will definitely be clashes, many inside are still unconvinced by ... the revolution and are willing to fight against it," he said.
Associated Press writers Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya; and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.