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Libya rulers think Gadhafi in desert

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Libya's new rulers believe Moammar Gadhafi may be hiding in the southern desert under the protection of ethnic Tuareg fighters, while two of his sons are holed up in cities besieged by revolutionary forces elsewhere in the North African nation, officials said yesterday.

Anti-Gadhafi fighters gained control of Tripoli and much of the rest of the country late last month, but the longtime Libyan ruler and his family fled and have been trying to rally supporters from hiding as fighting continues on three fronts -- Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha.

Col. Ahmed Bani, the military spokesman for the National Transitional Council, which is now governing the country, said he couldn't confirm any information about Gadhafi's whereabouts but he could say that Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, is in Bani Walid and another son, Muatassim, is in Sirte.

Although Bani offered no evidence, it was the first official confirmation that the revolutionary forces believe they know the location of the sons since the family fled Tripoli.

Another military official said earlier that the Libyans have intelligence that Gadhafi is hiding in the vast southern desert, possibly near the Algerian border, with help from Tuareg fighters. Ethnic Tuaregs, whose nomadic community spans the desert border of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad, are among Gadhafi's strongest remaining supporters.

"We do believe that he is somewhere in that region and we do know that Tuaregs are supporting him, probably because he's paying them," Abdel-Rahman Busin said, although he acknowledged that the information had not been confirmed.

"It's a very large bit of land to cover. We don't have the people to cover it all and he could move around quite freely," Busin said.

One report suggested Gadhafi was southwest of the desert town of Sabha, Busin said. He also said a recent attack on the border town of Ghadamis raised suspicion that the fugitive leader was hiding in the surrounding region, a vast area near the Algerian frontier. "Possibly they were just creating a diversion," he said.

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