JOHANNESBURG — A fugitive wanted by the International Criminal Court, Moammar Gadhafi’s one-time heir apparent appears to have disappeared in the Sahara Desert’s ocean of dunes and could remain hidden for months in an area more than twice the size of Texas.
“My latest information is that they are not in Mali, and they are not in Niger yet, either,” Malian legislator Ibrahim AgMohamed Assaleh said last week, adding to the mystery of the younger Gadhafi’s whereabouts.
Mr. Gadhafi, a 39-year-old British-educated engineer, could be deliberately feeding disinformation from a desert where national boundaries are unmarked and unpoliced and where smugglers and al Qaeda gunmen roam freely.
Analyst Adam Thiam, a columnist for Le Republicain newspaper in Mali, said life in the desert for long periods outside of isolated oases is nearly impossible, but that a zone in Mali has water, livestock and small game.
Mr. Gadhafi and his late father’s former chief of military intelligence, Abdullah al-Senoussi, reportedly have been traveling in separate convoys escorted by Tuaregs, the hardy nomads who understand best how to survive in the desert.
Loyalty to the ethnic group trumps nationality, and the Tuaregs’ traditional stomping grounds stretch across North Africa, from Morocco and Algeria to Libya and southwest to Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.
More than a dozen countries in Africa don’t recognize the international court, but even some that do ignore its arrest warrants amid criticism that the Hague-based court goes after a disproportionate number of Africans.
In the area where Mr. Gadhafi is thought to be hiding, only Algeria is not a signatory. Algeria was a staunch supporter of Moammar Gadhafi and has given refuge to his wife, a daughter and two other sons, but now is trying to establish ties with Libya’s new leaders.
He said he has no independent information about Mr. Gadhafi, but said he does believe media reports that his convoy is carrying gold, diamonds and cash - which could be his passport to freedom.
Mr. Thiam said up to 500 Tuaregs in 130 vehicles had fled Libya to northern Mali after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year regime. Hundreds of other Tuareg fighters have gone home to Chad and Niger.
Many Tuaregs are furious about how Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed.
Mosques in Tuareg towns across the Sahel dedicated Friday prayers to the memory of the slain Libyan leader, who used some of Libya’s oil wealth to build mosques and religious schools across the region and who glorified the tribes’ nomadic lifestyle.
A Western diplomat said last week that he has information suggesting that Mr. al-Senoussi crossed into northern Mali last week, though he cautioned that “a man like this could create false leads for people to follow.”
On Oct. 28, a Tuareg leader said Mr. Gadhafi was nearing the Mali border and could cross into the country that night. These sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
That same day, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, said he was in indirect negotiations with Mr. Gadhafi about his possible surrender for trial. Libyan officials then announced that they want Mr. Gadhafi.
Since then, nothing has been heard of Mr. Gadhafi.
Mr. Gadhafi himself never spoke of leaving his homeland.
“We have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya,” he told CNN Turk after rebels took the Libyan city of Benghazi in February.
After the rebels stormed into Tripoli on Aug. 21, they announced that they had captured him.
But he turned up in the middle of the night two days later at the luxury Rixos Hotel, where journalists were confined, flashing a big smile and a V-for-victory sign.
Appearing confident and defiant, he got into a white limousine escorted by armored SUVs and took reporters on a tour of “the hottest spots in Tripoli.”
That’s the last time he was seen in public - wearing a full beard in place of his usual designer stubble and dressed in camouflage trousers and a green T-shirt.
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