TRIPOLI // Scores of Libyan army vehicles carrying top officials from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime crossed the border into Niger yesterday.
Mansour Dao, Colonel Qaddafi's security chief and a key member of his inner circle, was among those who fled but the deposed leader himself was not.
There was speculation that Colonel Qaddafi might join the convoy later and make for Burkina Faso, which borders Niger and is among African countries upon whom he lavished money during 42 years in power, but last night that was ruled out.
"We cannot grant him asylum because for the past three years we have not had good relations with him," Burkina Faso government spokesman Alain Traore said. "We don't see why we would stick our neck out for him and create problems for ourselves."
Nevertheless, the convoys' passage south over the Sahara has fuelled speculation that Colonel Qaddafi may soon cut and run despite vows to remain fighting in Libya.
Information on the size of the convoys and who was in them was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of desert, more than 1,000 miles, between any populated areas on either side of the border.
But as the first group of a dozen vehicles pulled into Niger's capital, Niamey, yesterday, a customs official confirmed that it included Mr Dao and about a dozen other Qaddafi regime officials. The customs official said other Libyan convoys had passed through Agadez, about halfway between Niger's border with Libya and its capital in the far southwest.
US military officials said one of the convoys numbered between 200 and 250 vehicles and was escorted by Niger army personnel.
Burkina Faso, Niger, France, Nato and the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, have all denied knowledge of any deal that would allow Col Qaddafi to slip abroad and evade trial by the International Criminal Court, which has accused him of crimes against humanity.
Last month NTC fighters entered Tripoli and swiftly took control, transforming six-months of stop-and-go war into near-total victory. Col Qaddafi has not been seen publicly for months and is believed to have fled the city.
Col Qaddafi "is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits," the regime spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said in remarks broadcast on Monday. "He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya."
However, high-ranking regime members including Mr Ibrahim are rumoured to have headed south from the Libyan capital in recent days, and he may have been in the Niger convoy.
Mr Ibrahim indicated on Saturday that he was in Bani Walid, 90 miles south of Tripoli, from where Saif Al Islam Qaddafi was also reported to have departed by car the same day.
Thousands of NTC fighters were massed outside Bani Walid yesterday, as talks continued with tribal leaders to negotiate a peaceful entry into the town. NTC leaders said they believed about 100 pro-Qaddafi forces have holed up there.
Fighting was reported yesterday east of Sirte, Col Qaddafi's coastal home town. NTC forces are parked around the city and have given pro-Qaddafi fighters there until Saturday to surrender or face military assault.
Fighting has also occurred in recent weeks near the city of Sabha, which has figured with Sirte and Bani Walid among speculation over Col Qaddafi's whereabouts.
Yesterday the International Organisation for Migration warned that more than 1,200 migrants mainly from Chad, as well as Niger and Nigeria, were trapped in Sabha and risked being caught up in fighting there.
African migrants and dark-skinned Libyans have also fallen under suspicion by NTC forces, which have detained hundreds since last week to investigate them as possible mercenaries for Col Qaddafi.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger have arrived back in those countries after fighting for Col Qaddafi in Libya.
Other Libyan convoys apparently from the 200 to 250 vehicles that entered Niger yesterday was somewhere south of the city of Agadez.
NTC spokesman Fathis Baja said regime officials helped themselves to reserves from the Sirte branch of the Central Bank of Libya, loading some of the vehicles that entered Niger in recent days with stolen gold, euros and dollars.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse