A large convoy of Libyan military vehicles, led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's security chief, crossed into neighboring Niger on Monday night, as rebels negotiated a takeover of the regime's remaining strongholds.
Rebel sources told The Washington Times the convoy included top members of Col. Gadhafi's regime, Libyan military officers and mercenaries from the nomadic Tuareg tribe the regime recruited to fight the rebels.
Guma el-Gamaty, a London-based coordinator for the rebels' National Transitional Council, told The Times in a phone interview that Col. Gadhafi's security chief, Mansour Dao, had led the convoy south into Niger.
"He went ahead of the convoy to facilitate its passage to Niger," he said.
Rebel sources said there were as many as 250 vehicles in the convoy. Rebel officials interpreted the convoy's departure as a clear sign that the regime is fleeing Libya. Members of the Gadhafi regime are subject to a U.N. travel ban.
The convoy, which arrived in the town of Agadez from the Libyan town of Al Jufra late on Monday, was heading in the direction of Niger's capital, Niamey.
Rebels say the convoy's final destination could be Burkina Faso, which has promised asylum to Col. Gadhafi. Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, is a close ally of the deposed Libyan dictator and has received money and training from the Libyan regime.
The convoy is thought to be carrying large amounts of weapons, gold and cash.
Burkina Faso also has recognized the rebels' provisional government as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Burkina Faso and Niger are signatories to the International Criminal Court and obligated to arrest Col. Gadhafi, who is wanted by the court on charges of crimes against humanity.
Mr. el-Gamaty said he thinks Col. Gadhafi is either with the convoy or had traveled ahead of it to Niger or Burkina Faso.
On Monday, Col. Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told Syrian-based Al-Rai TV the Libyan dictator is "in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya."
Col. Gadhafi's second wife, Sofia, sons Mohammed and Hannibal, and a daughter, Aisha, fled to Algeria along with their families last month.
Rebels say Col. Gadhafi and two other sons, Seif al-Islam and Mutassim, are hiding in any one of three likely locations: the town of Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli; Col. Gadhafi's tribal stronghold, Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast; or the city of Sebha in the south.
Col. Gadhafi was born in Sirte, where his Gaddafa tribe is based, and in the 42 years that he was in power patronized the Warfalla tribe that lives in Bani Walid.
The rebels are in talks with tribal chiefs in Bani Walid to secure a peaceful takeover of the town.
Other Libyans describe the Warfalla as intricately aligned with the Gadhafis. The tribe's chiefs are concerned about their fate should they agree to let the rebels enter Bani Walid.
"We have given them assurances that we will not seek revenge. We are not like the [Gadhafi] regime," said Mohammed, a rebel spokesman in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, thousands of rebel fighters have amassed on the outskirts of Bani Walid. They say they want to take control peacefully, but are willing to fight if residents put up resistance.
Rebels last week extended a cease-fire by a week so negotiations could continue, but expressed frustration at the pace of progress. Saturday is the new deadline for the talks.
"The situation is going to be resolved soon," said Mr. el-Gamaty. "What is left inside Libya is a very small and insignificant element of the regime."
As news of the convoy's escape emerged, some rebels expressed frustration that they had been hoodwinked by the regime.
They said the loyalists' stalling tactics in the negotiations may have been a ploy to allow senior members of the regime to leave the country.
"We have been wasting time for the last three or four days while we gave them the chance to escape," said Lamin, a resident of Misrata who only gave his first name.
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