Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Tuareg people and the mystery of the Niger convoy - U.S. says at least a dozen senior Libyan officials fled by convoy into Niger

"A flurry of confusing reports lent an air of mystery to the convoy and set off excited speculation among Libyan rebels that Colonel Qaddafi had fled the country [Libya] — bringing joy that he could do no more harm here, and disappointment that he might have escaped Libyan justice — though by day’s end they were in doubt that he had fled." (New York Times)
  • The Tuareg people and the mystery of the Niger convoy (Daily Maverick)
  • Libyan convoys in Niger, may be Gaddafi deal (Reuters)
  • U.S. says at least a dozen senior Libyan officials fled by convoy into Niger (New York Times)
  • Libyan rebel leader Abdelhakim Belhaj admits to Al Qaeda ties (Libya Watch)

Full details here below.

The Tuareg people and the mystery of the Niger convoy
From The Daily Maverick -
Published: Wednesday, 07 September, 2011; 08:45:30 (South Africa).
Full copy:
Niger’s foreign minister insists that while several people, of varying importance, arrived in Niger in a heavily armed convoy on Tuesday, neither Gaddafi nor any of his sons were among the passengers. Asked whether Gaddafi was welcome in Niger, the minister said that decision was up to the president but added: "Gaddafi in Niger could cause some problems". Niger is certainly too close to Libya for any future government of Libya to feel free of the shackles of Gaddafi but in Niger itself, Gaddafi’s wheeling and dealing with the nomadic Tuareg people could prove especially challenging.

On Tuesday, while Nato jets continued to pummel Sirte, the hometown of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the nearby town of Bani Walid laid down their arms and agreed to hoist the flag of the National Transitional Council (NTC) well before the 10 September deadline. Rebel soldiers celebrated the advance closer to Gaddafi’s hometown by shooting into the air but their celebrations proved premature. Tribal leaders in Bani Walid recanted later in the day. But away from the to-and-fro of the negotiations, the most salacious news of the Libyan war came from Niger. Early reports indicated that a convoy of between 200 and 250 vehicles was given an escort by the army of Niger across the Libyan border. Reuters soon fanned rampant speculation of who exactly was aboard the convoy by quoting a French military source who believed the convoy would be joined by Gaddafi en route to neighbouring Burkina Faso, which has of course offered Brother Leader asylum.

The speculation was killed by the foreign minister of Niger who unequivocally denied that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was in Niger. "It is not true, it is not Gaddafi and I do not think the convoy was of the size attributed to it," the minister told AFP. Reports from Chad late on Tuesday appeared to corroborate the minister. The size of the convoy does now appear to have been significantly exaggerated. Eye witnesses claim no more than 30 vehicles passed into the town Agadez on Monday night. Speculation however has grown that South Africa – diplomatic superheroes that we are – is brokering a deal that would see Libya move entirely into rebel hands in exchange for a safe passage for Gaddafi into Burkina Faso. In Libya, the rumour mill is a particularly lucrative industry.

The much trumped-up convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, according to eyewitnesses. Tuareg rebel leaders were reported to have led the convoy into the town of Agadez under the protection of the local army. Gaddafi remains popular in towns like Agadez, where the majority of the population is Tuareg. Gaddafi is remembered fondly for his for his assistance to the Tuareg during their fight for independence.

The convoy into Niger raises questions about the Tuaregs and their political influence in Libya and the Sahel region. The Tuaregs are the nomads of the Sahara desert, and move largely unimpeded across the borders of Libya, Niger and Mali. They’re historically uncomfortable with governments and restrictions, and are a headache for whatever government is trying to exert its control over them. For example, the leadership of Western Sahara, the breakaway region of Morocco, is led by Tuaregs; and Tuaregs feature prominently in the ranks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Gaddafi was one of the few leaders who successfully co-opted the tribe into his regime, a feat achieved through the provision of political support and money. Tuareg fighters from other countries were welcomed in Libya, and Gaddafi funded Tuareg wars, even across borders: the two Tuareg leaders who apparently headed the convoy – Agbaly Alambo and Rhissa Agbouly – led an unsuccessful Gaddafi-funded rebellion in Niger before finding refuge in Libya.

In this context, Tuareg support for Gaddafi makes sense. What is more puzzling is how and why they escaped – or were allowed to escape – into Niger. Apparently, the convoy originated from Bani Walid, the town which has been besieged by the rebels for the last week. But did it fight its way through the rebel lines, or was it allowed past? There’s plenty of speculation about a possible secret deal to let the convoy through, with Libya’s new leaders perhaps preferring to be rid of a potentially troublesome – and heavily armed – group of people.

The heavily armed convoy also raises pressing questions about Gaddafi’s reported use of mercenaries during this war. Allegations of “African” mercenaries in Gaddafi’s troops have circulated for as long as this war has raged, but there has so far been scant evidence that Gaddafi did indeed hire mercenaries to quell the armed insurrection against his rule. An Amnesty International investigation into rebel claims that Gaddafi had paid men from Central and Western Africa to fight for him, found no evidence to corroborate such allegations. Early on in the war, many of the foreigners that were paraded to journalists as foreign mercenaries were later found to have been quietly released. Many of the foreigners accused of being mercenaries are actually sub-Saharan migrant workers without the requisite visas permitting them to be in the country. Talk about African mercenaries has flamed mistrust of dark skinned people in Libya, lending an air of racism to the foundations of the new Libya. Dark skinned people face arbitrary arrest and persecution as rebels seek to win Libya over from what they deem to be Gaddafi’s hired hands. So too, the Tuaregs in Libya have also been accused of being hired guns.

Tuaregs specifically from Niger and Mali have been singled as suspected mercenaries in Gaddafi’s army. Reports indicate that some 4,000 Tuaregs who had been unemployed after a peace deal ended their rebellion against the Niger and Mali governments in 2009 did indeed take up arms for Gaddafi. In March, the BBC reported that Tuaregs were being paid $10,000 to join the Libyan government forces and a further $1,000 a day to fight. If indeed true, this would not be the first time Colonel Gaddafi has turned to the Tuareg for troops. In the 1970s he bolstered his Islamic Legion, a military force to fight for a united state across North Africa, with the Tuareg.

Many Tuaregs have already left Libya, returning to Niger and Mali, but their reputation for violence remains with Tuaregs who remain in Libya, severely exacerbating tensions between the local Tuaregs and rebels. The report on Tuesday of the convoy of vehicles crossing into Niger is markedly similar to a report late last month of a convoy of 60 vehicles that had driven over the Libyan border into Niger. French media also reported a separate incident of a convoy of 20 vehicles crossing into Mali. The Tuareg seem to be in an almighty hurry to leave Libya, taking with them anything that could fetch a price across the border. In the case of the convoy that had crossed the Niger border last month, Niger officials found the remnants of a destroyed helicopter piled on to the back of a pickup truck. But the convoy on Tuesday is reported to have been loaded with cash looted from the central bank but more significantly, senior members of the Gaddafi regime. As Americans implore Niger officials to arrest any of Gaddafi’s aides found in the country, the Tuareg might find that their passengers fetch a handsome price. DM

Read more:

Libyan army convoy in Niger may be Gaddafi deal in Reuters Africa;
Reports Say Loyalists Are Fleeing From Libya to Niger in The New York Times;
Poor, Destitute Niger: Gadhafi’s New Home? In International Business Times.
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Here below are copies in full, for future reference, incase the above links become broken.

Libyan convoys in Niger, may be Gaddafi deal
From Reuters -
Published: Tuesday, 06 September 2011; 4:55pm GMT
BENGHAZI, Libya/AGADEZ, Niger (Reuters) - Scores of Libyan army vehicles crossed the desert frontier into Niger in what may be a bid by Muammar Gaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters on Tuesday.

The Libyan rebels who overthrew Gaddafi two weeks ago said they also thought about a dozen other vehicles that crossed the remote border may have carried gold and cash apparently looted from a branch of Libya's central bank in Gaddafi's home town.

Details of the developments remained very sketchy.

The military sources said a convoy of between 200 and 250 vehicles was escorted to the northern city of Agadez by the army of Niger, a poor and landlocked former French colony. It might, said a French military source, be joined by Gaddafi en route to adjacent Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum.

U.S. officials said they thought Gaddafi was still in Libya, though the convoy in Niger might contain senior figures.

France, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as Libya's new rulers and NATO, all denied knowing where Gaddafi was or of any deal to let him go abroad or find refuge from Libyans and the International Criminal Court who want to put him on trial.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said it was for Libyans to decide the venue but that Gaddafi must not slip away quietly. "He will have to face justice for all the crimes he has committed in the past 42 years," he said.

Near Tripoli, Reuters journalists found torture chambers used recently as Gaddafi tried to suppress the revolt.

Sources close to Niger's government said the head of Gaddafi's security brigade, Mansour Dhao, was in the capital Niamey. He was allowed in to the country earlier in the week.

But Niger's foreign minister, Bazoum Mohamed, was quoted by Al Arabiya television saying that Gaddafi was not in the military convoy, which arrived late on Monday.

Those comments did not contradict a French military source who said the 69-year-old fugitive and his son and heir Saif al-Islam might join the convoy later to head for Burkina Faso.

France has taken a lead in the NATO action backing Libya's uprising and, with its Western allies, would be likely to have the ability to track any sizeable convoy in the empty quarter.

But Niger's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Adani Illo, told Reuters that such surveillance over thousands of miles of desert was still hard. "The desert zone is vast and the frontier is porous," he said. "If a convoy of 200 to 250 vehicles went through, it is like a drop of water in an ocean."

Gaddafi has broadcast defiant messages since he was forced into hiding two weeks ago, and has vowed to die fighting on his own soil. But he also has long friendships with his poor African neighbours, with which he shared some of Libya's oil wealth.

The sources said the convoy, probably including officers from army units based in the south of Libya, may have looped through Algeria rather than cross the Libya-Niger frontier. Algeria last week took in Gaddafi's wife, daughter and two other sons, angering the interim council now ruling Libya.


Gaddafi's fugitive spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said in remarks broadcast on Monday: "Muammar Gaddafi is in excellent health and in very, very high spirits ... He is in a place that will not be reached by those fractious groups, and he is in Libya."

NATO warplanes and spy satellites have been scouring Libya's deserts for months, raising the likelihood that any convoy of the size mentioned would have been spotted. But a spokesman for the Western alliance said it was not hunting Gaddafi and had a U.N. mandate only to stop his forces attacking civilians.

"Or 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," Colonel Roland Lavoie said in a statement.

Tuareg nomads living in the Sahara say those fleeing Libya include many black Africans, some of whom may have been fighters for Gaddafi and most of whom fear the anger and reprisals of Gaddafi's enemies among Libya's Arabs.

NTC commanders last week said both Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam were in the tribal stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 km (90 miles) south of Tripoli. But that belief has evaporated this week after days of blockade of the town.

NTC officials said Saif al-Islam, for one, may have escaped south into the desert, toward the southern, pro-Gaddafi bastion of Sabha and perhaps on to Niger. Tracking him would be hard; fully 1,300 km (800 miles) of sand separate Sabha from Agadez, with a further 750 km of road to travel to Niamey.

Near Sirte, Gaddafi's home town on the Mediterranean coast, there was the first sign of heavy fighting for some days. Combatants reported exchanges of shell fire and rockets to the east. Several NTC fighters were wounded in an ambush.

Though conditions in Tripoli were improving with the return of water supplies two weeks after rebels overran Gaddafi's headquarters compound, evidence of brutality during his battle to cling to power during the Arab Spring is also accumulating.

Reuters journalists in the provincial town of Khoms found evidence Muammar Gaddafi had deployed squads which held suspected opponents in shipping containers, tortured them for information about insurgent networks and disposed of their bodies in unmarked graves.

"They wanted to frighten the people, so if anyone was thinking of going over to the rebels, they would change their minds," said Nabil al-Menshaz, a council official in the town.


A spokesman for the NTC said banknotes in the convoy of gold and cash that the council believed had reached Niger had been stolen from Sirte's branch of the Central Bank of Libya.

NTC official Fathis Baja told Reuters: "Late last night, 10 vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed from Jufra into Niger with the help of Tuaregs from the Niger tribe."

It was unclear if these vehicles were separate from the much larger military convoy reported by the foreign sources.

Burkina Faso, also once a French colony and a recipient of large amounts of Libyan aid, offered Gaddafi sanctuary last month but has also recognised the NTC as Libya's government.

President Blaise Compaore, like Gaddafi, took power in a military coup. He has run the country for 24 years.

Gaddafi has long touted his origins among the peoples of the desert. After largely turning his back on fellow Arab leaders, most of them allied with his Western adversaries, Gaddafi had portrayed himself as an African "king of kings".

He was fond of epic road journeys on his travels around the continent, so the drama of a flight across the Sahara into friendlier lands further south might seem a fitting departure.
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At Least a Dozen Libyan Officials Flee to Niger
From The New York Times -

A flurry of confusing reports lent an air of mystery to the convoy and set off excited speculation among Libyan rebels that Colonel Qaddafi had fled the country — bringing joy that he could do no more harm here, and disappointment that he might have escaped Libyan justice — though by day’s end they were in doubt that he had fled.

[PHOTO: Libya's Transitional National Council negotiators and tribal elders from Bani Walid met in a mosque near the city to talk about a peaceful surrender on Tuesday. Youssef Boudlal/Reuters]

Published: Tuesday, 06 September 2011
The colorful and contradictory accounts from rebel leaders and officials of various countries seemed to reflect the unpredictability of the conflict and of the colonel himself, and the difficulty that rebel forces, preoccupied with securing Libya’s main cities near the Mediterranean Sea, face in trying to snare fleeing loyalists in the vast desert south.

TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebel negotiators pressed fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in the town of Bani Walid to surrender on Tuesday, as a dozen senior members of his government fled the country in a convoy that crossed the southern desert into Niger, according to the State Department.
Some versions said the convoy included more than 200 military vehicles, the kind of grand entourage that Colonel Qaddafi sometimes took on his travels. Others said it was made up mainly of Tuareg fighters who had sided with him as mercenaries or irregulars. Rebel leaders issued conflicting statements, with some saying one of his sons had fled with gold looted from the country’s banks.

But later, in Washington, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, confirmed that a convoy had left Libya for Niger carrying “some dozen or more senior members of the regime,” including senior military commanders, but not Colonel Qaddafi.

The American ambassador to Niger, Bisa Williams, spoke to officials there and urged them to detain and return to Libya any exiles wanted by international prosecutors, Ms. Nuland said.

She said that Nigerois officials had been strongly urged “to detain those members of the regime 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, etc. — also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people.”

Senior rebel officials were left trying to learn who, if anyone, had slipped through their fingers even as their fighters pressed for the surrender of encircled loyalist strongholds in Surt and Bani Walid.

Ali Tarhouni, the deputy chairman of the Transitional National Council, said in a statement, “We’re in direct contact with officers on the ground and our friends at NATO, and we are trying to verify the facts about the convoy.”

Col. Ahmed Bani, the rebels’ military spokesman based in Benghazi, said in an interview that he thought about 15 people had fled.

“We can’t confirm how many vehicles were in the convoy or who was in the convoy,” he said. “They are saying that there was gold and money in the convoy, but we can’t confirm that.”

One thousand miles of desert separate population centers in Libya and Niger, and while rebels say they have troops in southern Libya, it is unclear whether any rebels were near roads or border crossings that the convoy might have taken.

Rank-and-file rebels said that they were disappointed by the escape of senior officials, like Mansour Dhao, Colonel Qaddafi’s security chief, who was blamed by many Tripoli residents for the crackdown there and was said by a Nigerois official to be in the convoy. But they said the escape had provided more evidence that the old government had lost its bite.

“We know that they don’t have the power to do anything significant,” said Rabei Dehan, 21, a Tripoli resident who said he had fought in the western mountains and spoke for a rebel unit called the Red Thuraya Battalion.

Niger’s government sought to play down the scale and composition 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 convoy as small — “three vehicles maximum” — and unarmed. Niger had allowed the group to cross into its territory for purely humanitarian reasons, he said.

The director of Radio Sahara, an independent radio station in Agadez, Niger, a town where the convoy was reported to have passed through, dismissed reports of a large military convoy. “Nobody has seen the convoy,” the director, Hamed-Assaneh Raliou, said. “Outside, maybe, in the bush. Maybe. It would astonish me, though, a convoy of 200 vehicles.”
“The only convoy was Sunday, 10 people,” he said. “Three vehicles. That’s the only convoy. I saw that one. They came Sunday afternoon.” He said they were in contact with Nigerois authorities.

The convoy was later reported to have moved on from Agadez toward the Niger capital, Niamey, 600 miles away in the southwest near the border with Burkina Faso.

Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the newspaper Agadez Info, told The Associated Press 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 for Colonel Qaddafi.

A rebel military spokesman, Abdulrahman Busin, expressed skepticism that a convoy could have gone unnoticed by NATO, whose warplanes have been conducting air operations over Libya under a United Nations Security Council mandate since March.

But a NATO official, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the political delicacy of the situation, said, “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.”

Colonel Qaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, whose whereabouts also remain a mystery, continued to portray the former leader as unbowed. He told Syrian television that Colonel Qaddafi was still in Libya, and in “excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya.”

“We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs,” The A.P. quoted Mr. Ibrahim as saying. “We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO.”

Meanwhile, rebel leaders sought to project control, continuity and gravitas. Mr. Tarhouni, the rebel official, presided as rebel forces handed over a major oil and gas complex to the same government official who was responsible for the facility’s security under Colonel Qaddafi, but who joined rebels early on.

The Mellitah oil and gas complex, which delivers natural gas to Italy via a pipeline, was handed back without any damage or looting by the rebels, according to employees, who had returned to work. But they said Qaddafi troops who occupied it earlier had stolen jewelry, electronics and even underwear from the houses of Italian managers.

Mr. Tarhouni said the transfer showed that the rebels were responsible and not intent on holding on to power and property seized during the fighting.

“The revolutionaries are not only capable of liberating Libya, but also making sure that its wealth is well protected,” he said in an interview. “I’m so proud not only that they are protecting the wealth, but also that they are easily willing to hand it back to the authorities.”

A rebel commander stood next to Mr. Tarhouni — both wore hard hats — and said that he had assigned rebels specific tasks to preserve the facility as loyalist troops fled, and that “now it’s my job to give it back.”

Mr. Tarhouni said the refinery would restore full production, including 25 million to 30 million cubic meters, or about 33 million to 39 million cubic yards, of natural gas exported daily to Italy within a few weeks, and called the transfer a signal to international energy companies that “your investment here is safe.”

He said oil tankers would soon be taking delivery.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera television said Libyan forces had struck a deal with loyalists in Bani Walid, 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, and planned to enter the town later in the day. But when elders negotiating for the loyalists tried to carry the proposed deal back into town, the loyalists, who watched the talks on Al Jazeera and apparently found their representatives too conciliatory, refused to receive them and told them to go join the rebels.

By nightfall there was no indication that rebels had moved in.

Anne Barnard reported from Tripoli, Libya; Adam Nossiter from Dakar, Senegal; and Alan Cowell from Paris. Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Paris.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 7, 2011, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Says at Least a Dozen Senior Libyan Officials Fled by Convoy Into Niger.

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Poor, Destitute Niger: Gadhafi’s New Home?
From International Business Times -
By International Business Times
Published: Tuesday, 06 September 2011; 9:30 AM EDT
Libyan army vehicles loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are reportedly crossing the desert borders southward into the West African nation of Niger. Speculation is rising that Gadhafi, realizing he has completely lost his hold over Libya after more than four decades, is desperate to find refuge in a friendly African state.

But what's Niger?

This vast landlocked country just north of Nigeria and east of Mali, is one of the world's poorest nations. More than four-fifths of Niger's territory is desert, forcing most of its about 15 million people to reside in the fertile far south and western corners of the nation.

Most of the people – who generally belong to the Hausa tribe, Tuareg or the Zarma-Songhai – are subsistence farmers with little access to education.

Nigeriens are plagued by various ills that keep them in poverty: periodic droughts, substandard schools, poor health care, and lack of infrastructure.

Despite a high infant mortality rate, Niger has one of the world’s highest fertility rates, which has led to half the population being under the age of 15.

Gadhafi has long intervened in the affairs of the Sahara nations, including Niger. He has sent money and arms to various groups engaged in uprisings, and he has reportedly recruited thousands of Nigeriens to fight as mercenaries in his private army in Libya.

As the former head of the African Union, Gadhafi allegedly viewed himself as “King of the Africans” and dreamed of a “Unites States of Africa.”

During the recent civil war in Libya, West African soldiers (as well as ordinary migrant workers) have tried to flee -- those who couldn't leave suffered horrific abuse and even death at the hands of Libyan rebels. Many of these Africans crossed into Niger, directly south of Libya’s border.

It is in Niger’s rugged northern terrain where the fabled Tuareg tribe dominates -- these are the hardy warriors whom Gadhafi has long hired as his soldiers and bodyguards. However, how many of them have crossed northward to Libya during the civil war to help fight the rebels is unclear.

A Nigerien Tuareg told France’s Le Monde publication: “There are hundreds of [us]. [We] leave in caravans. The ride is long but easy. We avoid Nigerien army checkpoints, and once in Libya, we’re at home. We’ve always been welcome there.”

Issuf Maha, a former official of the Nigerien Patriotic Front rebel group, told the French journal: “Unemployment, idleness, destitution and political frustration, added to the feeling that they are in debt to Gadhafi. All the ingredients are there to make the Tuaregs fight by his side. Gadhafi doesn’t need equipment or money, he needs men.”

Gadhafi has also recruited Tuareg fighters from the southern part of his own country Libya, as well as from Mali.

In a sidebar analysis, the BBC said “There is some support for Col Gadhafi in Niger: local groups have tried to organize pro-Gadhafi demonstrations, although turnout was fairly small. However, Niger's government has recognized the National Transitional Council in Libya and is a new democracy.”

In addition, BBC noted that Niger’s new leader, President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was elected in February, “is trying hard to convince the international community that he is a responsible leader, so he will be keen to prevent Niger getting caught up in the Libya conflict.”
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Note, yesterday's report at entitled Libyan Rebel Leader Abdelhakim Belhaj Admits to Al Qaeda Ties.

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