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Gadhafi security chief flees Libya, raising hope support crumbling
TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) ' Convoys of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last strongholds.
Still, efforts to negotiate the peaceful handover of one of the most crucial of those bastions, the city of Bani Walid, proved difficult.
Tribal elders from Bani Walid who met Tuesday with former rebels were confronted by angry residents of the city, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired in the air and sent them fleeing, mediators said. Many in Bani Walid remain deeply mistrustful of the forces that have seized power in Libya and are reluctant to accept their rule.
Some former rebels depicted the flight to Niger as a major exodus of Gadhafi's most hardcore backers. But confirmed information on the number and identity of those leaving was scarce given the vast swath of desert ' over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) ' between populated areas on the two sides of the border.
In Niger's capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president of the landlocked African nation which shares a border with Libya, said that Gadhafi's security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday accompanied by a major Tuareg rebel.
The government of Niger dispatched a military convoy to escort Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya's Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Gadhafi as well as a member of his inner circle, to Niamey.
Dao is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said Hassoumi, who denied reports that Gadhafi or any member of his immediate family were in the convoy.
Hassoumi said the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country's north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Gadhafi.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, "We don't have any evidence that Gadhafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment."
Since Tripoli's fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Gadhafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbor Mali who fought on Gadhafi's behalf in the recent civil war.
There has been intense speculation regarding the whereabouts of Gadhafi's inner circle and last week, Algeria, which like NIger shares a border with Libya ' confirmed that the ousted leader's wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed onto Algerian soil.
Hassoumi spoke of "waves" of returnees crossing over from Libya that preceded the arrival Monday of Gadhafi's security chief, but he said they were mostly Tauregs and not Libyan soldiers or civilians. Tuareg fighters have long been enlisted as mercenaries for Gadhafi's regime.
Customs official Harouna Ide told the AP that in addition to the convoy with Dao, other convoys from Libya were south of Agadez in central Niger.
Nuland said the U.S. has urged Niger to detain anyone who might be subject to prosecution in Libya, confiscate weapons and impound any state property such as money or jewels that were illegally taken out of the country.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders 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 he would be arrested if he came there.
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 last month 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 been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Gadhafi rule because of former regime figures in their midst.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel's National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi's son, Muatassim, was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the NTC ' the closest thing to a government in Libya now ' warned that Bani Walid had until Friday to surrender or else the former rebel forces would move in.
"We know that the decision for Bani Walid is not in the hands of its leaders and notables. It is a besieged town and (Gadhafi's) brigades have barricaded themselves in all parts of the town," he told Al-Jazeera television Tuesday.
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 homes demolished and their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.
That history gives the tribe a strong pride in an oddly contradictory legacy, as both early opponents of the regime and 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, lies on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.
Mohammed bin Masoud, a Bani Walid 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 former 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 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, trying to negotiate a peaceful entry by their forces. The elders said residents were 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 pledges, they were met by a gun-firing crowd.
The tribal elders who participated "don't represent all the tribes in Bani Walid," said al-Mubarak al-Saleh, a city representative on the National Transitional Council. "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 could potentially spark a gunbattle.
Bin Masoud expressed doubts that 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; Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali; Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya; and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.