A convoy of up to 200 vehicles carrying forces loyal to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi has crossed into Niger. Later Tuesday, senior officials in Niger denied that it was a large convoy, saying only a few Libyan vehicles entered the nation.
The ousted Libyan leader has close ties to Tuareg nomads based in northern Niger who Colonel Gadhafi has supported in the past and who may support him now.
The head of Colonel Gadhafi's security brigade, Mansour Dhao, crossed into Niger hours ahead of a larger convoy which quickly moved on toward the capital Niamey.
Officials in Niger said Colonel Gadhafi is not with the convoy, and it was not clear whether any Gadhafi family members or senior political allies were with it either.
Niger's capital in the far southwest of the country is close to the border with Burkina Faso, where officials offered Colonel Gadhafi asylum about two weeks ago.
It is believed the convoy may have first crossed into Algeria before entering Niger through an area that is home to Tuareg nomads with longstanding ties to the former Gadhafi government.
Niger's Tuareg rebels
Colonel Gadhafi backed several Tuareg rebellions in northern Niger, and hundreds of former Tuareg rebels have fought for him against Libyan insurgents.
"Gadhafi himself is a Bedouin. And the Tuaregs, of course, are the Bedouins of the Sahara. That's why they have always had this close relationship,” says Jibrin Ibrahim, who directs the Center for Democracy and Development, a non-profit research and advocacy group in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
The Tuareg are based in the eastern Sahara, mainly in Niger and Mali, where they have staged uprisings in both countries as part of a fight for greater autonomy.
Ibrahim says the arrival of heavily-armed Tuareg in the Libyan convoy can not be something Niger's new civilian government welcomes.
"Niger has had significant difficulties with its own Tuareg population that have been engaged in armed insurrection against the state at certain times in recent history," he says. "And I think they will be very concerned, not only that Gadhafi and some of his people might be there, but also the fact that there may be large groups of Tuaregs and other Bedouin groups moving into Niger with significant arms.”
Niger's northern Agadez region is also an area where terrorists from a group known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb have carried out kidnappings and ambushes.
Combined with Tuareg separatists, Ibrahim says it is an especially difficult area to control.
"The uprising that they have had in the Agadez region has not been completely quelled, so it is a question of great concern to Niger as a country,” he says.
Support for Libya's NTC
Niger's civilian government has recognized the anti-Gadhafi National Transitional Council as Libya's legitimate authority. So Ibrahim says some of those in the convoy may ultimately be handed over to Tripoli's new leaders.
"I don't think the statement being made by Niger is that they are supporting Gadhafi," he says. "Quite on the contrary, they are opposed to him. I think what the TNC needs to do is to engage in a diplomatic discussion with Niger to find out how they can have access to those people who have fled from Libya to Niger.”
The exact whereabouts of Colonel Gadhafi are unknown, as insurgents opposed to his rule work to defeat the last strongholds of his fighters in Libya.