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Top Gadhafi loyalists flee to Niger in desert trek

TARHOUNA, Libya — Convoys of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger on Tuesday in a move that Libya's rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last strongholds.

Still, efforts to negotiate the peaceful handover of one of the most crucial of those bastions, the city of Bani Walid, proved difficult.

Tribal elders from Bani Walid who met Tuesday with former rebels were confronted by angry residents of the city, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired in the air and sent them fleeing, mediators said. Many in Bani Walid remain deeply mistrustful of the forces that have seized power in Libya and are reluctant to accept their rule.

Some former rebels depicted the flight to Niger as a major exodus of Gadhafi's most hardcore backers. But confirmed information on the number and identity of those leaving was scarce as the convoy made its way across the vast swath of desert — over 1,000 miles — between populated areas on the two sides of the border.

In Niger's capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president of the landlocked African nation which shares a border with Libya, said that Gadhafi's security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday.

The government of Niger dispatched a military convoy to escort Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya's Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Gadhafi as well as a member of his inner circle, to Niamey.

Dao is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said.

Hassoumi said the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country's north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Gadhafi.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, "We don't have any evidence that Gadhafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment."

The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month. But on Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he came there.

Beirut

U.S. Embassy in Syria speaks out

The U.S. Embassy in Syria said Tuesday that President Bashar Assad is not fooling anyone by blaming terrorists and thugs for the unrest in his country as security forces try to crush the uprising by unleashing a brutal crackdown that has killed more than 2,200 people in nearly six months. In comments posted on the embassy's Facebook page, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford said it was clear Assad's regime has no capacity for reform. "Peaceful protesters are not 'terrorists,' and after all the evidence accumulated over the past six months, no one except the Syrian government and its supporters believes that the peaceful protesters here are," he wrote.

Associated Press

Top Gadhafi loyalists flee to Niger in desert trek 09/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 11:58am]

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