By David Williams
Colonel Gaddafi was said to have fled Libya last night in a 250-strong armed convoy including lorries full of gold and cash.
The deposed tyrant, who ruled Libya for 42 years, was reported to be travelling towards the impoverished west African state of Burkina Faso, which has said it would give him sanctuary, in a deal brokered by South Africa.
The convoy, made up of Libyan backers of the Colonel including his security chief Mansour Dhao and tribal fighters, crossed the desert into neighbouring Niger, arriving in the capital Niamey yesterday evening.
The reports were unconfirmed last night – and the Americans said they believed he was still in Libya.
However, intelligence officials suggested an extraordinary agreement had been brokered by South Africa and France, acting on behalf of Nato, to ‘prevent further widespread bloodshed’ by allowing Gaddafi and his family to leave.
Libya’s new leaders from the National Transitional Council refused to confirm the deal but were said to have ‘signed off’ on the agreement which allowed the toppled dictator to spend no more than 72 hours in transit passing through Niger, a poor and landlocked former French colony to the south of Libya.
The convoy of Gaddafi loyalists passed into Niger as rebels at this checkpoint in Bostata
prepared to advance on Bani Walid
Gaddafi’s son and one-time heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, is said to have accompanied his father, together with lorries laden with gold and cash. Officials in Niger underlined the uncertainty over the former leader’s whereabouts by claiming he was not in the convoy when it crossed the border but may have joined it later after travelling via Algeria.
Rebels, Nato Special Forces, helicopters and spy planes had all been monitoring the border area – the most realistic escape route for the Libyan leadership and military officers. Neighbouring Algeria last week took in Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two other sons. Significantly, rebel officials confirmed independently that a convoy of ten vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed with the help of tribal fighters into Niger yesterday.
Among the convoy of soldiers and Tuareg tribal fighters, who had fought as mercenaries for the regime, was said to be Dhao, the head of Gaddafi’s security brigades, and more than ten other senior officers. They are said to have spent the night in the central Niger town of Agadez and left yesterday on a 600-mile drive to the capital Niamey, in the country’s south-western corner, near the border with Burkina Faso.
Gaddafi has steadfastly claimed that he would not leave Libya and his spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said yesterday: ‘We will prevail in this struggle until victory … We are still strong, and we can turn the tables over against those traitors and Nato allies.
‘Muammar Gaddafi is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits … he is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya.’ But the fact that so many senior military figures and scores of foreign fighters had abandoned Libya and the fight was seen yesterday as ‘hugely significant’.
South African president Jacob Zuma has played a pivotal part in looking for a safe haven for Gaddafi in his role as special representative to Libya of the African Union. Under the agreement, the convoy was provided with an escort by Niger’s army, it was reported last night.
Gaddafi and Saif would spend time in Burkino Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou but it is not their final destination.
Nato warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft have been scouring Libya’s deserts for large convoys of vehicles that may be carrying the other Gaddafis. It is unlikely it could have crossed the border without some form of deal being struck. Libya’s leadership has said it wants to try Gaddafi before, possibly, handing him over to the International Criminal Court, which has charged him and Saif al-Islam with crimes against humanity.
Both men had been said by NTC commanders last week to be in the tribal stronghold of Bani Walid, 90 miles south of Tripoli, but escaped, possibly through underground water systems. Last night talks with town elders to ensure rebels could make a peaceful entry into Bani Walid were said to have broken down.
Guma el-Gatamy, rebel spokesman in London, said Niger would be penalised if proven to have helped Gaddafi escape.
‘It would very much antagonise any future relationship between Libya and Niger,’ he said.
See Related: Libya Archive