Tripoli, Libya — As rebel negotiators press loyalists in the desert town of Bani Walid to surrender peacefully before a Sept. 10 deadline, a long convoy of Libyan Army vehicles was reported on Tuesday to have crossed the country’s southern border into Niger in what could represent a shift in the balance of power after six months of conflict.
The convoy’s movements were reported by several news agencies quoting witnesses and military officials from France and Niger.
Reuters said the string of 200 to 250 vehicles could have been part of a dramatic secret attempt by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to find refuge in a friendly African state, possibly Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum. But officials in Niger sought to play down both the size and nature of the convoy, and said colonel Qaddafi was not traveling in it.
In a telephone interview, Marou Amadou, Niger’s minister of justice, described the group as a “small convoy” of unarmed people. Niger had allowed the convoy to cross onto its territory for purely humanitarian reasons, he said.
Moussa Ibrahim, the colonel’s spokesman, told Syrian television that Colonel Qaddafi was in “excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya” and was still in the country. “We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying. “We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO.”
The convoy was later reported to have moved on from the northern Niger town of Agadez toward the capital, Niamey, 600 miles away in the southwest near the border with Burkina Faso.
Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, told The A.P. that he saw the group arrive in several dozen pickup trucks. At the head of the convoy, Mr. Harouna said, was a Tuareg rebel leader who had sought refuge in Libya several years ago and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Colonel Qaddafi. In Libya, the rebels’ military press liaison in Tripoli, Abdulrahman Busin, said the news of a convoy crossing into Niger caught their forces by surprise. He said it was typical of the way Colonel Qaddafi has moved in the past within the country, with about 200 armored vehicles.
He also expressed skepticism that such a convoy could have escaped NATO observation but speculated that NATO may not have regarded it as a military target. He said this news would likely anger rebel fighters and might prompt them to break their truce around Bani Walid, because they would see the escape of regime leaders as a betrayal of their restraint.
Reuters said France may have brokered a deal between the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi but the French government declined to confirm the report. France was the first country to recognize the rebels who launched their uprising in February and has played a central role along with Britain and the United States in the NATO air campaign to weaken his forces.
Asked whether NATO was aware of the convoy’s reported movements, officials of the alliance at its headquarters in Brussels and its Libya operations base in Naples, Italy, declined to comment formally, saying they did not discuss intelligence matters.
But a NATO official, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation, said: “NATO continuously receives reports and inputs from various sources regarding weapons, vehicles and even convoys of vehicles moving throughout Libya. We do not discuss the intelligence and surveillance information we collect but we do publicly announce the actions we take when we act on what we consider are threats to the civilian population.”
“Just in the past two weeks two large convoys which were tracked moving towards a population centre were destroyed because they constituted a threat. To be clear, our mission is to protect the civilian population in Libya, not to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people,” the official said.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera television said Libyan forces had struck a deal with loyalists in Bani Walid and planned to enter the town later in the day. But by noon, there was no indication that they had done so.
Throughout Monday, rebel forces had continued to observe the one-week extension given to Bani Walid to surrender, and the rebels’ acting minister of defense, Jalal al-Dghaili, said talks with supporters of Colonel Qaddafi there were continuing, according to the chairman of the transitional council’s media committee, Jalil el-Gallal. Rebel attention was focused on Bani Walid because figures from the Qaddafi government were last seen fleeing there, about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Negotiations were continuing in the beleaguered holdout coastal city of Surt as well, said Abdulrahman Busin, the military’s press liaison.
As the talks continued with loyalists from Bani Walid, rebel forces remained 60 miles from the town on both eastern and western approaches to the small city, but had left a road open to the north to allow families to flee if they wanted to do so, rebels at checkpoints near the city said.
While rebels held their fire, NATO warplanes continued to attack, carrying out 52 airstrikes on Sunday, mostly in Surt. There were none that day in Bani Walid.
Rebel officials, meanwhile, struck notes of increasing confidence on several nonmilitary fronts.
On Monday, a group of rebel officials took a visiting United Nations envoy on a tour of their main detention center, Jadida Prison, while others announced that water service had been restored to Tripoli, the capital. Also, the government’s acting economy minister said badly needed cash had begun flowing in from abroad after some of the country’s foreign bank accounts were unfrozen.
Those efforts to restore normalcy plowed ahead even in the continued absence of the rebels’ top leadership, who remain either in the eastern city of Benghazi or abroad. Only 14 of the 42 members of the Transitional National Council have come to Tripoli as yet.
In Tripoli, more shops and businesses began to open, many rebel checkpoints disappeared from the streets, and celebratory gunfire diminished noticeably. The Libyan dinar’s value soared against the dollar on the official market, leading to the collapse almost overnight of a parallel or black market in the currency.
While the police have not yet taken over security duties from rebel fighters, the acting minister of the interior, Ahmed Darratt, said Monday that 40 to 50 percent of police officers had returned to duty.
Mr. Darratt also said that lists of corrupt policemen and those who had committed human rights abuses under Colonel Qaddafi had been compiled, but that they were a small number. “The vast majority of the policemen are serving the people and they are coming back,” he said.
Ian Martin, an envoy from the United Nations secretary general, met with Interior Ministry officials to discuss technical cooperation on justice and human rights issues, and then visited the Jadida Prison, where rebel officials have started to move prisoners from a variety of temporary facilities.
There are 700 there, he said, about half sub-Saharan Africans and half Libyans, most accused of supporting the previous government, although in many cases no specific charges had been levied.
Black African migrant laborers have complained that they are frequently subject to arbitrary arrest and accused of having been mercenaries fighting for Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.
Water engineers from the rebels’ stabilization committee in Tripoli announced that delivery of water to Tripoli via the Great Man-Made River, a network of pipes that brings water 500 miles from underground aquifers in the southern desert, had resumed as of 1 a.m. Monday.
They said that some parts of Tripoli would need work on clogged pipes before the water reached everyone.
The water problem “has been solved,” said one engineer, Abdul Hakim Shweidy. He was among a team of nine engineers sent on what one rebel official, Alamin Belhaj, called “a secret mission,” driving to the southern desert in modest cars to avoid drawing attention in areas still under Qaddafi control.
Rod Nordland reported from Tripoli, Adam Nossiter from Dakar, Senegal, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Bryan Denton contributed reporting from Misurata, Libya.
This article, “Reports Say Loyalists Are Fleeing From Libya to Niger,” originally appeared at The New York Times.