x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Qaddafi 'last seen heading south'

Man leading efforts by Libya's interim government to find the ousted former leader said Qaddafi may have been near the southern village of Ghwat, about 300 kilometres north of Niger, three days ago.

BENGHAZI // Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was last tracked heading for Libya's southern border, the man leading the hunt said, though Burkina Faso again denied yesterday any plan to offer the deposed leader refuge.

After the arrival in neighbouring Niger of dozens of Libyan vehicles, including some that may be carrying gold and cash, the United States said the convoy included aides to Colonel Qaddafi and urged authorities in Niger to hold any war crimes suspects.

Niger has denied Colonel Qaddafi is in the country, a poor, landlocked former French colony. But a French military source has told Reuters that Colonel Qaddafi and his son Saif Al Islam may have planned to rendezvous with the convoy in the Sahara, possibly via Algeria, before heading for Burkina Faso, which in the past had offered refuge.

Hisham Buhagiar, who coordinates efforts by Libya's interim government to find the ousted former Libyan leader, said he had evidence he may have been near the southern village of Ghwat,about 300 kilometres north of the border with Niger, three days ago.

"The last tracks, he was in the Ghwat area. People saw the cars going in that direction," Mr Buhagiar said. "We have it from many sources that he's trying to go further south, towards Chad or Niger."

The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore denied discussing giving Colonel Qaddafi sanctuary. "We have no information regarding the presence of Libyans on our soil since these events, and we have had no contacts with anyone in Libya about a request for political asylum," he told reporters in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Mr Compaore has ruled for 24 years after taking power, like Colonel Qaddafi, in a military coup. Like other African states, Burkina benefited from oil-funded Libyan aid under Colonel Qaddafi

Niger has also tried to distance itself. Officials have confirmed that Colonel Qaddafi's security chief, Mansour Dhao, had been let in but insisted it was a humanitarian gesture. Its interior minister denied on Tuesday a report from Niger and French military sources that 200-250 Libyan army vehicles had arrived via Algeria on Monday near the northern town of Agadez.

As with all efforts so far to find Colonel Qaddafi, two full weeks after his Tripoli headquarters were overrun by the motley collection of rebel groups who rose up in February, the trail is hazy, in a region where people are few and far between.

Mr Buhagiar also said: "He's out of Bani Walid, I think."

He was referring to the besieged tribal bastion, 150 kilometres south of Tripoli, where fighters of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have been trying to negotiate the surrender of a hard core of Col Qaddafi loyalists.

NTC commanders said last week they thought Colonel Qaddafi, 69, was there planning a counter-strike with Saif Al Islam, his heir apparent, and his intelligence chief, Abdullah Al Senussi. But it appears the senior figures are not there now, officials say.

All three are wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes committed during the revolt, though Libyans say they want to try them first, including for atrocities over the four decades before this year's uprising.

The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said he was unsure whether, as US officials have said, Colonel Qaddafi was still in Libya: "I think he's been taking a lot of steps to make sure that in the end he could try to get out if he had to, but as to where, when, and how that'll take place, we just don't know."

Colonel Qaddafi's fugitive spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, insisted in a call to Reuters on Tuesday that the Colonel had not left. "He is in Libya. He is safe, he is very healthy, in high morale."