Two Libyan convoys have passed through Niger this week, officials in that country said Tuesday, fueling renewed speculation about the whereabouts of ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and members of his family.
The U.S. State Department said it viewed the two sets of vehicles as parts of a single convoy – and that Gaddafi is not believed to be on it. “Apparently a convoy has entered and it does not include some senior members of the Gaddafi regime, but we do not believe that Gaddafi himself was among them,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. (CNN)
“Vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed from Jufra into Niger with the help of Tuaregs from the Niger Tribe,” Fathi Baja from the National Transitional Council told Reuters. (BBC)
One convoy was on its way Tuesday to the capital, Niamey, a military captain in Niger said. Another convoy reached Niamey a day earlier, an official with Niger’s Interior Ministry said. That convoy included six high-ranking Libyan officials close to Gaddafi, including Gen. Mansour Daw, the source said. Daw is said to be the head of the Revolutionary Guard and is responsible for the security of Gaddafi and his family. The sources did not want to be identified because neither is authorized to speak to the media.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said officials believe Gaddafi is on the run. “I don’t have any information as to exactly where he’s located,” Penetta said. (CNN)
Abdoulaye Harouna, an owner of a local newspaper in the northern Niger town of Agadez, said the convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Harouna, who saw the arrival. At the head of the convoy, Harouna said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Gaddafi. (CBC)
Bisa Williams, U.S. ambassador to Niger, spoke with that country’s government about the convoy, Nuland said. “We have strongly urged the Nigerian officials to detain those members of the regime who may be subject to prosecution, to ensure that they confiscate any weapons they have found and to ensure that any state property of the government of Libya – money, jewels, etc. – also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people.” (CNN) Williams told the Niger government that the United States expects it to comply if the new Libyan government requests anyone seeking refuge in Niger to be returned to Libya, State Department officials said.
Niamey is in Niger’s southwest corner, near Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso’s government said Tuesday that it has not offered Gaddafi asylum, contrary to news reports. If Gaddafi were to enter the country, Burkina Faso would “respect our obligation in the context of the International Criminal Court,” said government spokesman Alain Edouard Traore. (CNN)
Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and the former head of military intelligence, Abdullah Al-Senussi, face charges in the court at The Hague for crimes against humanity related to the regime’s violent crackdown against anti-government protesters. The court issued warrants for their arrests. Niger and Burkina Faso are signatories to the Rome Statute, meaning they recognize the court’s authority.
The NTC spokesman in London, Guma el-Gamaty, told the BBC that Niger would be penalized if it was proven to have helped Col. Gaddafi escape. “Niger is a neighbour of Libya from the south and should be considering the future relationship with Libya,” said Mr. Gamaty. “This – if confirmed – will very much antagonize the future relationship between Libya and Niger.” (BBC)
Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told AFP news agency: “This is not Gaddafi and I do not think the convoy had the numbers attributed to it.” (BBC)
In August, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, Yipene Djibril Bassolet, announced his country was recognizing the rebels’ National Transitional Council as Libya’s government. When asked what would happen if Gaddafi came to the country, Bassolet responded that Gaddafi could come, but that the government would respect its obligations with the International Criminal Court, Traore said.
The African Union has called on its member states – which include Burkina Faso – to refuse the International Criminal Court arrest warrants. In July, the AU called on the U.N. Security Council to activate Article 16 of the Rome Statute, which prevents any investigation of prosecution for a year. The Au argued that the court’s arrest warrants seriously complicated efforts to find a negotiated political solution in Libya. Traore told CNN that despite the AU position, Burkina Faso would “respect our obligation in the context of the ICC.” An AU representative could not be reached immediately Tuesday. Gaddafi has historically been a strong supporter of the African Union and has channeled large sums of money its way.
Traore said Gaddafi was not in Burkina Faso and that the government was not expecting him and doesn’t know where he is.
Abdallah Kenshil, chief negotiator for the Libyan rebels’ National Transitional Council, said Tuesday a convoy left the pro-Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid three days ago. “We believe that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was part of that convoy,” Kenshil said. (CNN)
NATO said Tuesday that while it “continuously receives reports” about weapons, vehicles and even convoys of vehicles moving throughout Libya, “we do not discuss the intelligence and surveillance information we collect… To be clear, our mission is to protect the civilian population in Libya, not to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people,” a NATO official said in an e-mailed statement. (CNN)
On Monday, Gaddafi spokesman Musa Ibrahim told Syrian al-Rai TV by phone that Gaddafi was “in excellent health” and that “no one will be able to know where he physically is.” (CNN) Ibrahim said that the Libyan leader was “in high spirits.” “He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya,” Mr. Ibrahim told Syrian-based Arial TV. (BBC) “We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs,” Ibrahim said. “We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO.” (CBC)
“We don’t have any evidence that Gaddafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding there was also no evidence his family members were in the group. (CBC)
Meanwhile, talks aimed at handing the rebels control of Bani Walid broke down Tuesday. Elders were negotiating with representatives of the transitional leadership returned to Bani Walid and reportedly were fired upon by pro-Gaddafi elements inside. They were forced to leave, said Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, spokesman for the National Transitional Council in the area.
As far as the council is concerned, negotiations have ended, Aziz said. The council no longer believes the problem can be solved peacefully. The council worries that those in Bani Walid who were willing to negotiate could be killed, Aziz said.
Earlier, chief negotiator Kenshil said people in Bani Walid did not need to worry that the council would harm or kill anyone if they drop their weapons. He added that the NTC made clear there will be no retribution for residents of Bani Walid and that the new leadership of Libya will respect property rights. “We follow the law and order,” he said. “This is the new Libya.” (CNN) Kenshil said rebels believe there are “several big fish” from the Gaddafi regime in Bani Walid.
A member of the rebel transitional council said by telephone Tuesday he was in a village near Bani Walid called al-Manasser that had just raised the rebel flag. “We want the rest of the tribes to do like al-Manasser to avoid bloodshed and to realize that the regime is over and it will not come back,” said Mubarak Sabah, who is from Bani Walid and represents the town on the transitional council. “They should realize that their brothers around the country are enjoying freedom and that they can follow them.” (CBC)
Mr. Tarhouni, the rebel official, made his initial comments about the convoy at a ceremony handing over control of the Mellitah oil and gas complex on the Mediterranean coast to the rebel administration. It was handed back without any equipment damaged or missing, said workers at the complex. Mr. Tarhouni said the handover showed that rebels were not only capable of protecting the country’s wealth but that “we are capable of managing it.” He said he hoped the refinery would go back to full production including 25 million to 30 million cubic meters of natural gas exported daily to Italy through the pipeline, within a few weeks and said the handover was a signal to international oil and gas companies that “your investment here is safe.” “I’m so grateful to the Zintan rebels who liberated the Western mountains and secured this important complex,” Mr. Tarhouni said, standing alongside rebel commanders at the end of a jetty that extends a mile into a calm, bright blue sea, where he said oil tankers would once again be taking delivery within weeks. The facility exports crude oil as well as natural gas. (New York Times)
For more than six months, Libyans have demanded democratic reforms and an end to Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. The unrest exploded into a civil war, and Gaddafi’s regime crumbled after anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed the capital of Tripoli in late August.
Gaddafi’s wife, two sons and other relatives fled to Algeria recently, deepening mistrust between the new LIbyan leadership and its neighbor. Algeria has said it acted on humanitarian grounds.