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Gadhafi 'on the run,' US defense chief reports

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Libya leader Moammar Gadhafi is on the run, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday, adding however that he didn't know the ousted leader's location.

"I wish I knew,'' Panetta said when asked about Gadhafi's whereabouts. "I don't have any information as to exactly where he's located ... the best information we have is that he's on the run.''

The Pentagon has said previously it had no reason to believe Gadhafi had left Libya. Asked whether that assessment had changed, Panetta said only: "I don't have any information as to his location.''

A senior military official in Libya's new leadership said Gadhafi probably has left Bani Walid and is heading further south with the help of loyalist tribes toward Chad or Niger.

Their speculation came after forces loyal to Gadhafi crossed in several armed convoys from Libya into neighboring Niger.

The toppled Libyan leader's own security chief was at the head of one of the columns, officials said Tuesday.

Late Tuesday, spokesman for the president of Niger debunked media reports that the convoy was comprised of over 200 military vehicles, saying only three cars had crossed ferrying one senior member of Gadhafi's entourage.

Massoudou Hassoumi, chief of staff of President Mahamadou Issoufou, told The Associated Press that his government had dispatched a convoy of its own military vehicles to accompany Gadhafi's security chief, Mansour Dao. 

Dao crossed the border on Monday and was escorted to Niger's capital, Niamey, where Hassoumi said he is being housed in a villa under surveillance.

Earlier, customs official Harouna Ide told The Associated Press that Dao headed the first convoy as it arrived in Niamey.

He said other Libyan convoys were south of Agadez in central Niger, a desert country bordering Libya and where Gadhafi has the support of many Tuareg tribal fighters.

It wasn't clear if Gadhafi family members were in the convoys, but al-Arabiya television quoted Niger's Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed as saying Gadhafi himself was not present.

The customs official said there were a dozen vehicles in Dao's convoy, and that among passengers were about 12 Gadhafi officials, Niger's Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula and other Tuaregs from Niger who had gone to Libya to fight for Gadhafi.

Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, said he saw one of the groups arrive in his town Monday in several dozen pickup trucks.

He said they headed for Niamey, a drive of some 600 miles. The capital is in Niger's southwestern corner near the nation of Burkina Faso, where Gadhafi has been offered asylum.

Harouna said he saw Boula in the convoy. Boula is a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago before seeking refuge in Libya.

Convoy carrying gold, cash Officials from Libya's interim ruling National Transitional Council said Tuesday that one convoy was carrying gold and cash.

"Late last night, 10 vehicles carrying gold, euros and dollars crossed from Jufra into Niger with the help of Tuaregs from the Niger tribe," Fathis Baja, head of the NTC committee for political and international affairs, told Reuters.

NTC spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said it was carrying money taken from a branch of the Central Bank of Libya in Gadhafi's birthplace Sirte, one of the few towns still in his supporters' hands.

The government of Burkina Faso said late last month they would recognize the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council. Foreign minister Djibril Bassolet also said the landlocked West African nation would welcome Gadhafi "if he wishes it."

A top security official in Burkina Faso said government officials had not been advised about any convoy headed for Burkina Faso. The official asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak to journalists.

Both Niger and Burkina Faso are signatories to the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for the Libyan leader, his son and the country's intelligence chief. But both nations also belong to the African Union, which during a July summit called on member countries to disregard the warrant.

Western officials said they did not have any information on the convoy. Harouna says the pro-Gadhafi troops accompanying Boula were well-armed.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the ministry did not know who was in the vehicles.

"We have no more information than you do," he told a reporter. "We are monitoring the movement of these vehicles, and we will see."

Gadhafi financed Tuareg revolt?
Gadhafi's regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Gadhafi.

Gadhafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, a Sahara Desert market town where a majority of the population is Tuareg. There, the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy.

Harouna said the pro-Gadhafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit.

The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.

Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month.

The rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Gadhafi strongholds, in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.

Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town as their leaders tried to negotiate a surrender deal.

Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Gadhafi from power, though rebel forces backed by NATO airstrikes have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.

The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.