Libyan, Tuareg convoy heads for Niger capital

September 6, 2011 - 5:10 AM

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — A large convoy of Libyan soldiers accompanied by Tuareg tribal fighters left Niger's town of Agadez Tuesday morning and are headed south for the capital, said the owner of a private newspaper.

Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, said he saw the group arrive Monday in several dozen pickup trucks. He said Tuesday morning that they were headed south toward the capital, Niamey.

At the head of the convoy, he said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Moammar Gadhafi.

It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Gadhafi family or other high-level members of his regime.

Foreign officials said they did not have any information on the convoy.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the ministry did not know who was in the vehicles.

"We have no more information than you do," he said. "We are following the movement of these vehicles, and we will see."

Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said he had "no knowledge" about the convoy.

A NATO official said early Tuesday that the alliance did not have any immediate information about the convoy.

NATO warplanes don't normally patrol that deep south in the Sahara, he said.

The toppled Libyan leader is known to have used battalions of Tuareg fighters who have long-standing ties to Gadhafi. His regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Gadhafi.

Gadhafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, a Sahara Desert market town where a majority of the population is Tuareg. There, the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy.

Harouna said the pro-Gadhafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit. The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.

Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month, though the rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Gadhafi strongholds, in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.

Gadhafi loyalists have been holed up in several towns, including Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town, as rebel leaders tried to negotiate a surrender deal.

Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Gadhafi from power, though rebel forces — backed by NATO airstrikes — have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.

The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jamey Keaten in Paris and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.