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September 05, 2011

Gadhafi Loyalists Flee in Convoy to Niger

Reports that a large convoy of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters has fled Libya for Niger have angered many in the Libyan capital.   Citizens want to see their former leader and those around him facing justice at home.

A convoy of some 200 armored vehicles is said to have crossed into Niger from southern Libya late Monday, possibly via Algeria.  As the reports spread, so, too, did speculation that some of the Gadhafi loyalists may be headed on to Burkina Faso, which has offered safe haven to the ousted leader.

Gadhafi's longstanding ties to Niger's Tuareg

Moammar Gadhafi has longstanding ties to Tuareg nomads in Niger, the country entered by a convoy of pro-Gadhafi forces late Monday.

Colonel Gadhafi once supported a Tuareg rebellion in northern Niger, and hundreds of former Tuareg rebels have fought for him against Libyan insurgents.

The Tuareg are based in the eastern Sahara, mainly in Niger and Mali. Tuareg fighters have staged uprisings in both countries over the years in a bid for greater autonomy.

In the past decade, Colonel Gadhafi pushed Libya toward closer ties with other African countries, and used his oil money to forge tighter relationships with the continent's leaders.

Some African countries continue to recognize Colonel Gadhafi as Libya's leader. Niger's government, however, has recognized the anti-Gadhafi National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate authority.

Burkina Faso has straddled the line on events in Libya, recognizing the National Transitional Council, but also willing to flout its obligation to the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Gadhafi on war crimes.

Jalal al Galal, a spokesman for the provisional authorities, says the NTC wants Gadhafi to stay in Libya.

"The NTC has made it very clear all along that they requested from all the neighboring countries not to aid and abet criminals on the escape.  We don't know the content of the convoy.  It could be gold.  It could be money.  It could be members of his family.  We hope that it is not members of his family and we hope it is not him," he said.

Gadhafi's whereabouts remained unknown Tuesday and early reports that he may have planned to join the convoy appear unfounded.  Late Monday, his spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, also on in hiding, said the former leader remained in Libya.

Officials in Niger are quoted as saying the convoy was smaller than reported, and insisted Gadhafi was not in it.

Libyans were quick to condemn any possible escape of their former leader or his supporters.  In Tripoli's central Martyr's Square, Fawzi Jobran, an accountant, said Mr. Gadhafi and his inner circle must be held accountable.

"He must be in front of the Libyan people here.  It's not fair," he said. "He must bring the mafia -- those criminals -- to stay here."

Nearby, Yusef, who did not give his last name, echoed that sentiment. "For the trial, I prefer, and I pray to Allah, it will be in Libya. Because in The Hague, there will be a lot of respect [for Gadhafi].  He will not feel suffering.  But in Libya, he will know how suffering we were," Yusef stated.

Several members of Gadhafi's immediate family have already taken refuge in neighboring Algeria.  The incident also prompted anger from Libya's provisional authorities.

The possible movement of key ex-officials out of Libya comes as the NTC grapples with taking control of the last remaining Gadhafi-held towns.   Forces loyal to the NTC continued to mass outside Bani Walid and Sirte Tuesday, giving his supporters until Saturday to lay down their arms or face an attack.  Negotiations with tribal representatives and Gadhafi supporters have been held on and off for days.

Bani Walid tribal leader Abdul Qader Ganyeh was optimistic a confrontation could be avoided.

Ganyeh says 90 percent of the people in the town are for a peaceful solution, and "want to be part of Libya."

The provisional leaders have also been making headway on other, practical matters.  Much of Tripoli now has running water again, the supply of electricity is becoming less sporadic, and the mood looking forward remains upbeat.

Even Yusef, the man who wanted Gadhafi to suffer, showed his sense of humor was intact, riffing on the former leader's famous vow to hunt down rebels street by street, house by house, alleyway by alleyway.

"We will build our country from street to street, from house to house, zenga zenga ["alley to alley"],  And this will take not a long time," Yusef said.

But he adds, once more, he really wants Gadhafi found.