BENGHAZI, Libya/AGADEZ, Niger (Reuters) - Libya’s new leaders sent envoys to Niger on Wednesday to try to prevent Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage evading justice by fleeing across a desert frontier toward friendly African states.
“We’re asking every country not to accept him. We want these people for justice,” 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.
“He’s looking for a chance to leave,” Baja said.
Gaddafi’s whereabouts remain a mystery. Another senior NTC official said he was tracked this week to an area in the empty Sahara of Libya’s south. But in the north, at the besieged loyalist bastion of Bani Walid, yet more officials thought he might still be in the town with two of his sons.
The Pentagon said it knew nothing to indicate the fallen strongman had left Libya. Niger, which took in his security chief this week, insisted Gaddafi had not crossed its border.
Washington said it had also contacted the governments of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso — a swathe of poor former French colonies which benefited from Gaddafi’s oil-fueled largesse in Africa. The State Department urged them to secure their borders, detain and disarm Gaddafi officials and confiscate any assets that might have been stolen from Libya.
Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam are wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said 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 toppled the president of next-door Tunisia.
The firm said the military vehicles might have been part of a $135 million 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 of Human Rights Watch said: “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.”
French and Niger military sources have told Reuters that a convoy of 200-250 Libyan army vehicles arrived near the northern Niger city of Agadez on Monday via Algeria, which last week welcomed Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two of his sons.
Niger Justice Minister Marou Amadou said on Wednesday the reports were exaggerated and only a handful of vehicles had crossed.
“We want to inform the world that Gaddafi is not in Niger... He is a former head of state, he will not come incognito into Niger. If he has to come, our government will be informed, and if that happens we will inform you of our decision.”
A French military source said Gaddafi might have been preparing to meet up with the convoy in Niger and head for Burkina Faso. That country offered Gaddafi exile on Aug. 24 but says he has not been in contact about seeking refuge.
U.S. ambassador Cretz said the 69-year-old fugitive was still 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 satellites and intelligence resources that could help track fugitives. But Cretz, briefing reporters 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 a grand-daughter reveals a mix of playfulness and, possibly, paranoia: “Do you not love me?” he asks, repeatedly, in the film made by his son Saadi and obtained by Reuters.
His six sons and daughter came to form part of a ruling entourage in Libya that was widely despised during the 42 years Gaddafi was in power. On Wednesday, the NTC’s chief negotiator at Bani Walid, a tribal stronghold of Gaddafi support 150 km (100 miles) south of Tripoli, said he believed heir-apparent Saif al-Islam and another son, Mutassim, were in the town.
Asked about suggestions that Gaddafi himself might be there, as senior NTC commanders said last week, Abdallah Kanshil said he was checking: “That would explain why Bani Walid is resisting. His two sons are definitely there.”
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 tribesmen still loyal to him. Libya’s southern desert is also not under the control of the NTC.
Aid agencies and local Tuareg nomads report many black Africans — some of them possibly former mercenaries for Gaddafi, most just migrant workers — trying to flee south in fear of attack.
Niger’s desert north is a vast area, the size of France, and awash with bandits, rebellious nomads and a growing number of al Qaeda-linked gunmen blamed for deadly kidnappings.
Gaddafi is no stranger, 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 and Bate Felix in Niamey, Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Agadez, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou and Richard Valdmanis and Mark John in Dakar; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff