Niger Officials Deny Large Libyan Convoy Entered Nation

Posted September 6th, 2011 at 10:10 pm (UTC-5)
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Conflicting reports have emerged about whether a large convoy carrying forces loyal to ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi has crossed into neighboring Niger.

Three high-ranking officials from Niger late Tuesday denied media reports that more than 200 military vehicles from Libya had entered the country, saying only three cars had crossed the frontier.

The New York Times quotes Niger's justice minister, Marou Amadou, as saying the convoy consisted of “three vehicles maximum” and was unarmed. The head of Mr. Gadhafi's security brigades, Mansour Dhao, and several companions are the only people known to have crossed into Niger.

The Associated Press quotes the chief of staff of Niger's president as saying that when Dhao crossed the border he was escorted to Niamey and is being housed in a villa under constant surveillance.

The chief of staff said witnesses who reported seeing dozens of vehicles in the convoy had confused them with those sent by Niger's government to escort the Libyans. He also described “waves” of returnees crossing over from Libya as mostly Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and Mali and had fought for Mr. Gadhafi in the recent war.

Earlier, the U.S. State Department said a group of vehicles carrying a dozen or more senior leaders from Mr. Gadhafi's government, including military commanders, was heading toward Niger's capital, Niamey. A spokeswoman said Mr. Gadhafi himself is not in the convoy, confirming an earlier statement from Niger's foreign minister.

Niamey is in Niger's southwestern corner near Burkina Faso, whose government said Tuesday it has not offered Mr. Gadhafi asylum, contrary to some news reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington does not know where Mr. Gadhafi is, but has information that he is “on the run.”

Meanwhile, Libya's provisional authorities have again pressed tribal elders to surrender the town of Bani Walid. Negotiators from Libya's National Transitional Council met with the Bani Walid elders Tuesday at a mosque on the town's outskirts. They pledged residents would be safe and promised “no revenge” if the city was turned over to NTC forces.

But the elders were later confronted by angry citizens, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired into the air and sent them fleeing. Bani Walid is one of three remaining bastions of the ousted leader. Thousands of anti-Gadhafi fighters remain in positions outside the city ahead of a Saturday deadline for loyalist holdouts to surrender.

Bani Walid is dominated by Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, which helped anchor Mr. Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule. However, many of the anti-Gadhafi fighters encircling the city also are Warfalla members.

The NTC is focused on Bani Walid, about 170 kilometers southeast of Tripoli, because witnesses last saw members of Mr. Gadhafi's inner circle fleeing there.

Also Tuesday, the first fighting in days was reported near Sirte, another Gadhafi stronghold and the former leader's hometown. NTC commanders stressed the clashes did not mark the launch of an all-out bid to capture the city.