The US says scores of Libyan army vehicles have crossed the desert into Niger, a claim denied by the country’s interior minister.
The United States thinks the convoy with senior members of the defunct regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi entered Niger but did not include Gaddafi himself, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Nuland said the United States have urged the government of Niger to detain the Libyan officials.
Niger’s interior minister denied that scores of vehicles had entered the country, saying that, to his knowledge, only the head of Gaddafi’s security brigades and his family had been welcomed in the country.
Abdou Labo said that security chief Mansour Dhao had been allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds, but said he was the only Libyan official to have been received.
He added that he did not believe Gaddafi had crossed into Niger.
Earlier, however, a National Transitional Council spokesman, citing Tuareg sources, said around 250 military vehicles with Gaddafi loyalists, carrying gold and cash, crossed the desert frontier between Libya and Niger, accompanied by an escort from the army of Niger.
Military officials from France and Niger told Reuters that the crossing of the military convoy could be a sign that Colonel Gaddafi has brokered an agreement with Niger or another friendly African state, possibly Burkina Faso, to take refuge there.
The former Libyan leader was effectively deposed last week when rebel fighters opposing his rule stormed Tripoli. He has not been seen since and there is no confirmation of his whereabouts, although some other members of his family fled to Algeria last week.
A French military source suggested that Gaddafi could join the convoy en route for Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum. Other sources suggested that France may have brokered a deal between Gaddafi and the rebels to get him out of the country, as a military convoy of such a size would be unlikely to make it far without some kind of official knowledge while Nato continues to scour Libya by air.
Gaddafi has previously vowed to die a martyr on Libyan soil. There was no official confirmation from western governments or from Libya’s new ruling council regarding the convoy.
Separately, there are reports that rebels and Gaddafi loyalists have agreed a deal to avoid violence at the town of Bani Walid, one of the last few towns loyal to the colonel in Libya.
Rebels had threatened that they would take the town by violence unless Gaddafi’s fighters agreed to lay down their weapons.
Rebels are also trying to squeeze Gaddafi loyalists out of his hometown of Sirte, on the coast, as well as a swathe of other desert territory, as they try to restore order in Libya after six months of fighting ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.