TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyan fighters have surrounded the ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and it is only a matter of time until he is captured or killed, a spokesman for Tripoli’s new military council said Wednesday.
Anis Sharif would not say where Gadhafi had been found, but said he was still in Libya and had been tracked using high technology and human intelligence. Gadhafi is trapped within a 40-mile- (60 kilometer-) radius area surrounded by rebels, he said.
“He can’t get out,” said Sharif, who added the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him.
Locating Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers’ hold on the country. The announcement came after convoys of Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger in a move that Libya’s former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last strongholds.
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 given the vast swath of desert – over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) – between populated areas on the two sides of the border.
In Niger’s capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president said Gadhafi’s security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday accompanied by a major Tuareg rebel.
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, who denied reports that Gadhafi or any member of his immediate family were in the convoy.
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.”
Since Tripoli’s fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Gadhafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbor Mali who fought on Gadhafi’s behalf in the recent civil war.
There has been intense speculation regarding the whereabouts of Gadhafi’s inner circle and last week, Algeria, which like Niger shares a border with Libya – confirmed that the ousted leader’s wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed into Algeria.
Hassoumi said “waves” of returnees had crossed over from Libya before the arrival of Gadhafi’s security chief, but he said they were mostly Tuaregs and not Libyan soldiers or civilians. Tuareg fighters have long been enlisted as mercenaries for Gadhafi’s regime.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month, raising speculation the convoys were part of a plan to arrange passage there for the ousted leader. But on Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he went there.
The anti-Gadhafi fighters who toppled his regime by sweeping into Tripoli last month have been struggling to uproot the his bastions of support, particularly in the cities of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. They say residents in those cities have been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Gadhafi rule because of former regime figures in their midst.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel’s National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi’s son, Muatassim, was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city’s Central Bank branch.
NATO said Wednesday that it had made a number of airstrikes around Sirte – Gadhafi’s hometown – hitting six tanks, six armored fighting vehicles and an ammunition storage facility, among other targets.
Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the Transitional Council – the closest thing to a Libyan government now – warned that the loyalist town of Bani Walid had until Friday to surrender or else the former rebel forces would move in.
“We know that the decision for Bani Walid is not in the hands of its leaders and notables. It is a besieged town and (Gadhafi’s) brigades have barricaded themselves in all parts of the town,” he told Al-Jazeera television Tuesday.
More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, with some fighters firing weapons into the air in their eagerness to assault the town.
“Frizz-head, we’re coming to get you,” some chanted, using a now-commonly heard insult for Gadhafi.
Commanders said, however, that they were still awaiting orders for an attack.
Residents of the holdout cities have a complex mix of motives.
Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.
That history gives the tribe a strong pride in an oddly contradictory legacy, as both early opponents of the regime and an entitled part of Libya’s leadership.
The dusty city of 100,000, strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valley, lies on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.