BENGHAZI, Libya/AGADEZ, Niger (Reuters) - Libya’s new leaders sent envoys to neighbouring Niger on Wednesday to try to prevent Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage evading justice by fleeing across a desert frontier toward friendly African states.
“The NTC has sent a delegation to Niger to discuss the possible arrival of Gaddafi,” Fathi Baja, the head of political affairs for the National Transitional Council, told Reuters in Benghazi, saying the ousted strongman may be close to the Niger or Algerian borders, waiting for an opportunity to slip across.
“I think he’s near one of these borders ... and he’s looking for a chance to leave. We’re asking every country not to accept him. We want these people for justice,” Baja said.
Reports on Gaddafi’s whereabouts remain decidedly sketchy. Another senior NTC official said Gaddafi had been tracked this week to an area in the empty Sahara of Libya’s south.
Gaddafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. British Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament any country where he was found should hand him over to be tried, remarks that were echoed by U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz.
With his overthrow, however, have come revelations of the extent to which U.S. and British officials were until recently cooperating with Gaddafi — once a pariah in the West but rehabilitated by Washington and London in the past decade.
Papers found by Reuters in Tripoli showed a British arm of U.S.-based General Dynamics was modernising tanks and troop carriers for a feared brigade led by Gaddafi’s son Khamis, as recently as January, after “Arab Spring” protests began in neighbouring Tunisia.
The firm said the equipment might have been part of a $135 million May 2008 contract with its British subsidiary, part of what it termed at the time “the United Kingdom’s initiatives to improve economic, educational and defence links with Libya”.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director with Human Rights Watch, said: “I think the lesson is that if you are going to sell weapons to dictators, at some point down the line you’re going to be deeply embarrassed.”
Niger has officially denied receiving a convoy of scores of Libyan army vehicles. French and Niger military sources told Reuters the convoy had arrived near the northern city of Agadez late on Monday via Algeria, which last week welcomed Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two of his sons.
A French military source said Gaddafi might be preparing to meet up with the convoy and seek refuge in Burkina Faso, another nearby African state. Burkina Faso denied any such plan.
U.S. Ambassor Cretz said the 69-year-old fugitive Gaddafi remained a threat while at large: “A Gaddafi free in Libya could pose a continuing danger to the success of the new government to make sure its writ is spread throughout the country.”
NATO powers which helped topple Gaddafi have spy satellites and other intelligence resources that could help track fugitives. But Cretz, briefing reporting online, said: “We will participate to the extent that we are asked to, but as of right now it’s a question for the Libyan authorities to find Gaddafi.”
Among other discoveries in the wake of the Gaddafis’ flight, a home video showing the former leader playing with one of his grand-daughters reveals a mix of playfulness and, possibly, paranoia: “Do you not love me?” he asks, repeatedly.
NTC official Baja said envoys from Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s interim prime minister, would meet Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou to discuss “any infiltration of Gaddafi groups to Niger”. He added: “I don’t think Niger will accept Gaddafi.”
NTC officials said some vehicles that arrived in Niger were laden with looted Libyan gold and banknotes. The United States said on Tuesday the convoy included senior aides to Gaddafi, and urged authorities in Niger to hold any war crimes suspects.
The French military source said Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam may have planned to meet the convoy in Niger, a poor and landlocked former French colony, before heading to Burkina Faso.
Hisham Buhagiar, who coordinates efforts by the NTC to find the ousted strongman, said he had evidence Gaddafi may have been near Libya’s southern village of Ghwat, some 300 km (200 miles) north of the border with Niger, three days ago.
“The last tracks, he was in the Ghwat area. People saw the cars going in that direction,” Buhagiar said in an interview late on Tuesday. “We have it from many sources that he’s trying to go further south, towards Chad or Niger.”
Burkina President Blaise Compaore denied discussing giving Gaddafi sanctuary. “We have no information regarding the presence of Libyans on our soil since these events, and we have had no contacts with anyone in Libya about a request for political asylum,” he told reporters in the capital Ouagadougou.
Compaore has ruled for 24 years after taking power, like Gaddafi, in a military coup. Like many other African states, Burkina Faso benefited from oil-funded Libyan aid under Gaddafi.
Niger has also tried to distance itself. Officials have confirmed that Gaddafi’s security chief Mansour Dhao has been let in, in what they called a humanitarian gesture. Its interior minister denied the arrival of hundreds of Libyan vehicles.
Government sources in Chad, another poor African neighbour, said it had asked France to send drones to monitor the border area and believed this would deter Gaddafi from trying to enter.
As with all efforts so far to find Gaddafi, two full weeks after rebels overran his Tripoli headquarters, the trail is hazy, in a region where people are few and far between.
U.S. officials have said Gaddafi was still in Libya, but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was not sure: “I think he’s been taking a lot of steps to make sure that in the end he could try to get out if he had to, but as to where, when, and how that’ll take place, we just don’t know.”
Gaddafi’s fugitive spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, insisted in a call to Reuters on Tuesday that he had not left. “He is in Libya. He is safe, he is very healthy, in high morale.”
NTC commanders said last week they thought Gaddafi, 69, was in the besieged tribal bastion of Bani Walid, 150 km (100 miles) south of Tripoli, planning a counter-strike with heir apparent Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. But it appears the senior figures are not there now, NTC officials say.
A standoff with NTC fighters outside the town has lasted for days. Outside Bani Walid on Wednesday, residents leaving through a sun-scorched NTC checkpoint at the nearby settlement of Wishtata painted an increasingly desperate picture.
“People are terrorised,” said Salah Ali, 39. “But many still support Gaddafi because they were paid by the regime, because many have committed crimes and are afraid of arrest.”
Aid agencies have also raised concerns about conditions for civilians in the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and another redoubt of tribal leaders still loyal to him. Libya’s southern desert is also not under the control of the NTC.
Nearby, Niger’s desert north is now an escape route for many Gaddafi supporters, including Africans he hired as mercenaries to bolster his forces this year. The vast area, the size of France, is awash with bandits, rebellious nomads and a growing number of al Qaeda-linked gunmen blamed for deadly kidnappings.
Gaddafi is no stranger to the area, having used his oil wealth to fund development projects and dabble in politics by backing and seeking to mediate an end to various rebellions.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Christian Lowe and Alex Dziadosz in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Maria Golovnina in Wishtata, Barry Malone, Sylvia Westall and Alastair Macdonald in Tunis, Sami Aboudi, Amena Bakr and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Nathalie Prevost in Niamey, Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Agadez, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou and Richard Valdmanis and Mark John in Dakar; Editing by Peter Graff; Writing by Alastair Macdonald