Moammar Gadhafi's playboy son, known for his love of fast cars, soccer and excessive partying, slipped into Niger over the weekend and began making his way Monday to the capital, a Niger government official said.
The 38-year-old al-Saadi Gadhafi is one of the highest-profile former regime figures to flee to this landlocked African nation whose immense northern desert has been a haven for drug smugglers, al-Qaida terrorists and now fleeing Libyan loyalists. The discovery is bound to raise pressure on Niger which has promised to turn over anyone wanted by the International Criminal Court which includes Gadhafi and a different son.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that al-Saadi Gadhafi has crossed into Niger, where authorities "are either in the process or have already brought him to the capital of Niamey and intend to detain him."
A Niger government spokesman said it was keeping al-Saadi under surveillance.
The country, however, has not said whether they will turn over other regime figures, like al-Saadi, who are wanted by Libya's new interim government but are not the subject of a warrant by the world court. Meanwhile, Gadhafi remains deeply popular here, where he built dozens of mosques.
"Nothing has changed in the government's position. There is no international search for him. Like the others he is just under surveillance," a government spokesman said, referring to other Gaddadfi loyalists who have recently fled to Niger. Niger appears to have become the only exit for members of Gadhafi's inner circle. After the ruler's wife and several of his other children crossed into Algeria, that border was sealed. It's unlikely they would flee east to Egypt because they would need to go through rebel-held territory. And the Chadian frontier has proved difficult to cross.
Waves of convoyes
Niger's border with Libya is vast and impossible for the country's ill-equipped and cash-strapped army to monitor. Since last week, waves of convoys carrying regime officials have drifted across the invisible line set on undulating dunes. They include other top regime figures like Gadhafi's chief of security and the general in charge of the country's southern command.
The arrival of al-Saadi takes it to a new level of intimacy, indicating that even the ruler's family is choosing Niger as their best option.
"Nobody called us to tell us that these people were coming," government spokesman Morou Amadou told The Associated Press by telephone on Monday. "We intercept them as they are making their way south and they run into our patrols. We are allowing them to enter on humanitarian grounds since we cannot send them back to a war zone."
The arrival of the son also raised speculation that Gadhafi may eventually be headed to Niger. "There are strong suggestions that he is going to be convoyed here," said an immigration official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
"First, there is our proximity. We are closest to the areas of Libya that are still under Gadhafi's control. But beyond proximity, there is the fact that the Algerian side is now shut," the official said. "They can't go to Egypt because of the rebels. Chad is also closed. That leaves only one place — Niger."
Last week, the U.S. urged Niger to detain any individuals who may be subject to prosecution in Libya, and to confiscate their weapons and impound any state property, such as money or jewels, that were illegally taken out of the country. Amadou said that al-Saadi, who was traveling in a nine-person convoy, was asked to hand over his weapons.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Gadhafi regime members are fleeing with cash and gold looted from the nation's banks. Amadou said he does not know what the son was carrying in terms of valuables, but his lifestyle in Libya before his father's fall was marked by luxury.
When rebels rode into Tripoli last month, they stormed al-Saadi's home on the Mediterranean. In the parking lot they found a white Lamborghini. The son, a soccer afficionado was described in a 2009 WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli as having a troubled past, including run-ins with police in Europe, drug and alcohol abuse and excessive partying.
In an office area in the villa, reporters saw large piles of catalogues for yachts and cars. A catalog by the firm Benetti had a yellow handwritten post-it note attached listing the price for a 30-meter-long yacht as 7 million euros.
Associated Press Writers Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger, Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Wadi Dinar, Libya, Maggie Michael in Cairo, and Ben Hubbard and Ryan Lucas in Tripoli, Libya, contributed to this report.