BENGHAZI, Libya — As members of the ousted government of Moammar Gadhafi rolled into Niger with gold, jewels, cash and other state property on Tuesday, the U.S. said it had asked Niger to arrest those who could be prosecuted and return the property to the people of Libya.
Other officials said the U.S. is playing an active role in the manhunt for Gadhafi, together with Britain and France, which have military advisers on the ground. Raising its profile after trying to "lead from behind," the Obama administration made clear it would make every effort to block Gadhafi's exit to any neighboring country.
Two convoys of 10 and 12 four-wheel-drive vehicles respectively crossed the Sahara Desert in the past two days, said Shamsaddin ben Ali, a spokesman for the revolutionary regime that overthrew the dictator, who was in power for 42 years. He said only Niger would know for sure if Gadhafi was on board, and the National Transitional Council had asked its southern neighbor to seize the occupants and hand them over to Libya. Niger's foreign minister has denied that Gadhafi was on board.
"We hear they're carrying a lot of gold," ben Ali told McClatchy.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they are actively attempting to track Gadhafi but do not believe he was aboard the convoys that reached Niger.
A dozen or more former senior Gadhafi regime officials were on the convoys that crossed the border, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Gadhafi was not believed to be among the former officials, who appeared to be former military officers, she said.
The U.S. ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams, in a meeting with Nigerian officials called on Niger to detain any of the former senior officials who "may be subject to prosecution, to ensure that they confiscate any weapons that are found, and to ensure that any state property of the government of Libya, money jewels, et cetera, also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people," said Nuland. "I think all of them would be subject to the U.N. travel ban, which is why we're working closely with the government of Niger."
The U.S. doesn't have "any evidence that Gahdafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment," she said.
Another U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue, put it this way: "He obviously knows we're trying to find him."
Gadhafi's current location is only one of the mysteries swirling around the former Libyan leader. The bigger question is which foreign country is likely to offer sanctuary, in light of an arrest warrant issued by the United Nations' International Criminal Court against Gadhafi, his son Saif al Islam and Abdullah Senussi, his espionage chief, following an indictment for crimes against humanity in suppressing the national uprising.
Meanwhile, officials of the National Transitional Council sought in vain to negotiate the peaceful handover of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown on the Mediterranean coast; of Bani Walid, a town of 70,000 southeast of the capital of Tripoli; and of Sabha, a garrison town deep in the Sahara — all strongholds for Gadhafi loyalists — before its ultimatum runs out Saturday.
Tribal elders in Bani Walid met with transitional council officials Tuesday and most said they accepted the overthrow of Gadhafi and want to join the new government. But at least one elder said the rebel Libya forces should enter the city unarmed, a condition the council rejected. After the extraordinary exchange, which was televised live on the Doha-based Al Jazeera Arabic satellite channel, the two sides went into a closed session, apparently to discuss the handling of Gadhafi loyalists accused of killing civilians.
Ben Ali said it was a good discussion, but the town is divided among sympathizers with the revolution, Gadhafi loyalists and some who were "unaware" that Libya's new rulers will not exact revenge but plan trials with due process for all who are accused of war crimes.
While emphasizing that the National Transitional Council "wants the complete surrender" of Bani Walid, ben Ali said he's still hopeful of an agreement there and in Sirte before Friday at midnight, when the rebels' ultimatum runs out.
To many Libyans, it appeared that a deal was in the works under which Gadhafi would be allowed to escape abroad and in return he'd instruct his loyalists to lay down their arms, but there was no evidence that this was the case.
While several members of the African Union were said to be seeking a way for Gadhafi to escape to safety, many of the likely destinations are ruled out because of the indictment. Niger is a state party to the Treaty of Rome setting up the tribunal, and Burkina Faso, to its west, is as well. South Africa, which has felt sympathetic to Gadhafi, a prominent participant in the campaign against apartheid, is also a state party to the ICC treaty. At least one all-news television channel reported that Gadhafi might go to Burkina Faso, but officials in Ougadougou, the capital, said they had not invited him.
"Gadhafi is under a U.N. travel ban," said ben Ali, adding that it "would not bode well for Niger" — or any other country — "to give him safe haven."
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