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Gadhafi loyalists flee across desert

TARHOUNA, Libya -- Convoys of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara Desert into neighboring Niger yesterday in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could undermine the ousted leader's support in his last strongholds in the country and help lead to their surrender.

Still, efforts to negotiate the peaceful handover of one of the most crucial of those strongholds, the city of Bani Walid, proved difficult.

Tribal elders from Bani Walid who talked with former rebels were met by angry residents, including Gadhafi supporters, who fired in the air to intimidate them, mediators said. That illustrated how many in Bani Walid remain deeply mistrustful of the forces that have seized power and reluctant to accept their rule.

The scope of the flight to Niger was not immediately clear. Some former rebels depicted it as a major exodus of Gadhafi's most hard-core backers. Information on the number and identity of those fleeing was scarce as they made their way across the vast swath of desert,more than 1,000 miles, between any populated areas on the two sides of the border.

Gadhafi himself is not in the convoys, the U.S. State Department said.

As the first group of a dozen vehicles pulled into Niamey, Niger's capital, yesterday, a customs official confirmed that it included Mansour Dao, Gadhafi's security chief and a key member of his inner circle, as well as around 12 other Gadhafi regime officials.

The official, Harouna Ide, told The Associated Press that other Libyan convoys had passed through Agadez, a town about halfway between Niger's border with Libya and its capital in the far southwest. Those included heavily armed contingents of Tuareg tribal fighters from Niger, who have been long enlisted by Gadhafi's regime, Niger officials said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States has urged Niger to detain any individuals who may be subject to prosecution in Libya; confiscate the weapons; and impound any state property illegally taken out of the country.

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