Updated at 3:38 p.m. ET
TARHOUNA, Libya - Armed loyalists of Muammar Qaddafi, including his security chief, fled into neighboring Niger in multiple convoys across hundreds of miles of desert on Tuesday. Libya's former rebels now the country's de facto rulers claimed the convoys were a major flight by Qaddafi's most hardcore backers from his final strongholds.
The claims could not immediately be confirmed. Information on the size of the convoys and who was in them was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of Sahara over 1,000 miles between any populated areas on the two sides of the border.
But 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, Qaddafi's security chief and a key member of his inner circle, as well as around 12 other Qaddafi 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.
Qaddafi himself is not in the convoys, Niger's Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed said, according to Al-Arabiya television.
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A significant flight by Qaddafi's senior regime figures could bring an important shift as the opposition forces that swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and toppled the longtime leader struggle to shut down the last holdouts of his supporters.
Three major cities remain under Qaddafi's sway Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. If hardcore figures flee in large numbers, it could reduce backing for Qaddafi among residents and open the door for an end to standoffs at the holdout cities.
Still, the significance of the convoys was unclear. A spokesman for Tripoli's new military council said the leadership was aware of the convoy but had few details. "It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort," Anis Sharif said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has urged authorities in Niger to detain any of the convoys' individuals who may be wanted in Libya; confiscate 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 Qaddafi regime were in the group that reached Niger, but that it did not include Qaddafi or members of his family.
Nuland also said U.S. officials have been talking in recent days with all of Libya's neighbors about their obligations.
Qaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant in a Tuesday phone call to the Syrian TV station al-Rai, saying the ousted leader was "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya." Ibrahim, who the rebels believe was in Bani Walid, said both Qaddafi
and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," he said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO," he said, though the regime effectively collapsed more than a week ago.
An International Criminal Court warrant accuses Qaddafi of abuses in his crackdown on the rebellion, and both Niger and its neighbor, Burkina Faso, are signatories to the treaty that created the court.
Niger's capital, reached by the Libyan convoy Tuesday, is in Niger's southwestern corner near Burkina Faso, which last month offered Qaddafi asylum. Tuesday, however, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Qaddafi, said it had no information on his whereabouts and indicated that if he came to the West African country he would be arrested.
Many in the new leadership depicted the convoy's flight to Niger as a significant retreat by Qaddafi's inner circle.
Guma El-Gamaty, a British-based spokesman for the Transitional National Council the de facto government said the convoys included "the heavyweight political, military and media officials and officers" and described them as "a turning point" that could lead to the hand-over of Bani Walid and Sirte.
A representative of Sirte in the TNC, Hassan Droua, said he had reports from witnesses inside the city that a convoy of cars belonging to Qaddafi's son Muatassim had left Sirte, heading south toward the Niger border, after they were loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Droua said there were negotiations Tuesday with tribes in Sirte for the hand-over of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast 250 miles southeast of Tripoli. Fadl-Allah Haroun, a commander in Benghazi
where the TNC remains based, also said there were talks with Sirte residents and that he had reports of as many as 250 vehicles in fleeing convoys.
Some members of Qaddafi's family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Negotiators met Tuesday with tribal elders from Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, in talks that showed little progress and underlined the deep mistrust between the two sides.
"The revolutionaries have not come to humiliate anyone. We are all here to listen," Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator, said at the start of the meeting. Then, https://www.gczw821q5.online
in a message clearly intended for the hardcore Qaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid, some of whom may be fearing rebel retribution, he added: "I say we are not like the old regime. We don't take revenge and we don't bear grudges."