As Libya's transitional leadership tries to persuade tribal leaders in Bani Walid to surrender the desert town peacefully, several news agencies are reporting a new wrinkle in the effort to wipe out the last vestiges of the Qaddafi regime: anywhere from 50 to 250 Libyan Army vehicles have crossed over Libya's southern desert border into Niger, heading first to the town of Agadez and then to the capital, Niamey. What was the mysterious convoy carrying? That's a matter of dispute.
Reuters, citing anonymous military sources from France and Niger, claims the convoy, which was escorted by the army of Niger, may represent a "dramatic, secretly negotiated bid" by Muammar Qaddafi" and his son Saif al-Islam to seek refuge in neighboring Burkina Faso, which has offered the ousted Libyan leader asylum while simultaneously recognizing the rebel National Transitional Council as Libya's new government. The news agency, however, hasn't received any confirmation that Qaddafi or his son crossed the border. (On Sunday, the head of Qaddafi's security brigades, Mansour Dhao, crossed into Niger along with other Libyan officials. Reuters adds that "such a large Libyan military convoy could hardly have moved safely" into Niger "without the knowledge and agreement of NATO air forces," suggesting that "France may have brokered an arrangement between the new Libyan government and Qaddafi." An NTC spokesman in Tripoli added that Qaddafi has a history of traveling around Libya with 200 armored vehicles.
But the BBC notes that the convoy, which was transporting gold, euros, and dollars, may have simply been carrying fleeing Qaddafi loyalists--specifically Tuareg nomads who fought for Qaddafi and crossed the border with the help of Tuaregs from Niger. (In 2009, Qaddafi helped broker a peace deal between the government of Niger and a Tuareg rebel group.) Al-Jazeera adds that the convoy may have also been carrying officers from Libya's southern army battalions and money from a Central Bank of Libya branch in the Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte. The BBC's Jon Leyne agrees with Reuters that the long convoy "could not have crossed the desert without NATO turning a blind eye," but a spokesman for the alliance suggests that NATO didn't interfere with the caravan because of its mission in Libya, not because of any secret deal between Qaddafi and Libya's new leaders, as Reuters suggests. In a statement, Colonel Roland Lavoie asserted that NATO's 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."
Officials in Niger, meanwhile, have denied that Qaddafi crossed the border, emphasized that the convoy was smaller than reports suggest, and explained that they allowed the vehicles to enter the country for humanitarian reasons--a justification Algeria used when Qaddafi's relatives entered its borders. Qaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim also insists that the fugitive leader is still in Libya.