HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, Associated Press
The Salem News
TARHOUNA, Libya —
TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi is determined to fight his way back to power, the toppled dictator's spokesman said Tuesday, but a large convoy of his soldiers has apparently deserted, crossing the Libyan desert into neighboring Niger.
Also Tuesday, tribal elders in a Gadhafi stronghold were trying to persuade regime loyalists holed up inside to lay down their arms, a rebel negotiator said.
Still, Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant.
Gadhafi is "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya," Ibrahim told the Syrian TV station al-Rai, adding that both Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," Ibrahim said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO."
Gadhafi loyalists have been holed up in several towns, including Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town.
Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kanshil said Tuesday that tribal elders want assurances that the rebels will not take revenge, and are trying to persuade Gadhafi loyalists to lay down their arms.
Abdullah Kanshil, a rebel negotiator, opened a meeting with tribal leaders from Bani Walid Tuesday by assuring them his fighters were not bent on revenge. Another rebel official, Ali Dariki, listed medical supplies the rebels had brought for the town.
Abdel-Qader al-Maya, speaking for the tribal leaders, said at the meeting televised live by Al-Jazeera that rumors were circulating in Bani Walid that the rebels are going to "rape women and slaughter the people in Bani Walid."
Across the desert late Monday, a large convoy of Gadhafi loyalists rolled into the central Niger town of Agadez, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the local newspaper. The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Harouna, who saw the arrival.
Harouna said Tuesday morning the convoy headed out, toward Niger's capital, Niamey, 950 kilometers (about 600 miles) south.
At the head of the convoy, Harouna said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Gadhafi.
It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Gadhafi family or other high-level members of his regime.
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, where a majority of the population is Tuareg. The Sahara Desert market town is the largest city in northern Niger.
Harouna says 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 Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
A rebel spokesman for Tripoli's military council said the rebel leadership was aware of the convoy but had few details.
"It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort," Anis Sharif said.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance did not have any immediate information about the convoy.
NATO warplanes don't normally patrol that deep south in the Sahara, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing alliance policy.
NATO reported bombing several sites overnight near Gadhafi's Mediterranean hometown of Sirte, a region NATO has targeted heavily every day in recent days.
Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but speculation has centered on Sirte and the other loyalist holdouts of Sabha in the far south and Bani Walid.
Rebel commander Fadl-Allah Haron told AP by telephone Tuesday that the rebels are 40 kilometers from Sirte, and hearing reports from the town that Gadhafi forces are searching for rebels there.
"The mercenaries and Gadhafi forces are threatening people, taking over the rooftops of their houses to place snipers," he said. "The people in Sirte are willing to join us but the mercenaries are threatening them"
He said that Gadhafi's son, Muatassim, who was his father's national security adviser, is believed to be in Sirte.
The rebels hold most of Libya and have sketched out plans for a transition to democratic rule that would begin with a "declaration of liberation" that was likely to come before Gadhafi's strongholds are defeated and he is captured.