Tripoli, Libya – Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s second wife and three of his children fled to Algeria on Monday, the Algerian Foreign Ministry said. It was the first official news on the whereabouts of any members of the Qaddafi family since he was routed from his Tripoli fortress by rebel forces a week ago, a decisive turn in the Libyan conflict.
In a brief announcement carried by Algeria’s official news agency APS, the ministry said Colonel Qaddafi’s wife, Safiya, daughter Aisha, and sons Hannibal and Mohammed, accompanied by their children, “entered Algeria at 08:45 a.m. (0745 GMT) through the Algeria-Libyan border.”
The announcement gave no further details. The whereabouts of Colonel Qaddafi himself remain unknown, along with those of his other sons, most notably Seif al-Islam, his second-in-command; Khamis, head of an elite paramilitary brigade; or Muatassim, a militia commander and Colonel Qaddafi’s national security adviser. A rebel spokesman said Sunday that Khamis al-Qaddafi may have been killed on Saturday, but that no positive identification had been made.
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Colonel Qaddafi’s mysterious and vexing vanishing act has been the looming question in Libya since the alliance of Libyan rebels invaded Tripoli on Aug. 20, overran his heavily fortified compound on Aug. 23 and finally established control after days of bloody urban street fighting. The rebels have said they will not consider their victory complete until they capture or kill the colonel, who has ruled Libya for 42 years and was the Arab world’s longest-ruling leader.
Algeria is the only Libyan neighbor that has not recognized the Transitional National Council, the rebel government, as the legitimate rulers of Libya.
The news from Algeria came as the rebel forces in Tripoli took visible new steps toward installing themselves as the country’s official government, signing new energy deals with ENI, Italy’s biggest oil company, and permitting France and Britain, the leading countries in a NATO alliance that assisted the rebel movement, to send advance teams into Tripoli with the intent of re-establishing their embassies here.
An announcement by Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement small team of diplomatic and technical staff was “now on the ground in Tripoli as part of the preparations for that wider diplomatic presence.”
Rebel officials, meanwhile, appealed on Monday for NATO forces to continue the air campaign that has greatly weakened Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, saying they remain a threat.
“I call for continued protection from NATO and its allies from this tyrant,” Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the council, as the rebel administration is known, said at a meeting of alliance defense chiefs in Doha, Qatar, on Monday, news reports said.
He spoke as rebel forces were reported to be approaching Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown. Surt, regarded as a last bastion of support for the dictator, is more than 200 miles east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast. News reports said the rebels were seeking a negotiated surrender of the town.
For its part, NATO seemed intent on continuing its mission, mandated by a United Nations Security Council resolution in March.
“We believe the Qaddafi regime is near collapse, and we’re committed to seeing the operation through to its conclusion,” United States Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of NATO’s Joint Operations Command, told a news conference in Doha, according to Reuters.
“Pockets of pro-Qaddafi forces are being reduced day by day,” he said. “The regime no longer has the capacity to mount a decisive operation.” He said NATO air strikes had destroyed 5,000 military targets in Libya.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said that alliance warplanes attacked Surt for a third day on Sunday.
The rebels have been adding to their military gains. On Sunday, they said that they had captured Bin Jawwad, a strategic eastern hamlet that has in the past been a stumbling block on their path toward Surt.
In Tripoli, the transitional council continued to struggle to restore running water, electrical power and fuel in the capital, and to provide adequate medical supplies for hospitals packed with wounded, tasks rebel leaders acknowledge will help make or break the legitimacy of their new government.
Officials working to restore water said that as Qaddafi forces retreated from Tripoli, hundreds of desert wells that pump water to it and much of the western coast had somehow been shut off. Restarting the pumps can be done only manually, but the threat of Qaddafi fighters’ continuing presence is keeping crews away. “They are not yet able to move because the area is not safe yet,” said Aref Nayed, a member of the council and a leader of its Tripoli stabilization team, adding that he believed the restart would be “days not weeks.”
Mr. Nayed said that the United Nations had agreed to send five million liters of bottled water — about two and a half liters for each Tripoli resident — and that some was already being distributed through mosques around the city. He said that two boatloads of aid had arrived, and that the provisional government had re-opened an airbase to receive cargo planes as well. Rebel fighters were close to securing Tripoli International Airport, he said.
In a symbolic transition, Libyan state television is set to begin rebroadcasting again, Libyan radio reported, under the control of the rebels it denounced until just a week ago as foreigners, terrorists and rats.