NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — A spokesman for the president of Niger debunked media reports that a convoy of over 200 military vehicles from Libya had entered his country, saying only three cars had crossed ferrying one senior member of Moammar Gadhafi's entourage.
Massoudou Hassoumi, chief of staff of President Mahamadou Issoufou, told The Associated Press late Tuesday 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 Niamey, where Hassoumi says he is being housed in a villa under surveillance.
Hassoumi says witnesses reporting seeing dozens of vehicles were confusing the vehicles the Niger government had sent to escort him with those that had come from Libya.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Senior members of Moammar Gadhafi's regime crossed in convoys from Libya into neighboring Niger on Tuesday, with the toppled Libyan leader's own security chief at the head of the first column to roll into the capital, officials said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said some senior members of the Gadhafi regime were in the convoy that reached Niger.
"But we do not believe that Gadhafi was among them," she told reporters. "We don't have any evidence that Gadhafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment."
The U.S. had no evidence to suggest that Gadhafi family members were in the group, either, she said.
Nuland said the U.S. has urged Niger authorities to detain any individuals who may be subject to prosecution in Libya; confiscate their weapons; and impound any state property — such as money or jewels — that were illegally taken out of the country.
Customs official Harouna Ide told the AP that Mansour Dao, Gadhafi's security chief, was at the head of the first convoy. 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.
Assarid Ag Imbarcaouane, an official from neighboring Mali, said a convoy was carrying Gadhafi's entourage. Imbarcaouane is second vice president of the National Assembly of Mali and is a pro-Gadhafi Tuareg leader.
"As far as the information I have received, the Guide is not in the convoy," he said, referring to Gadhafi. "Rather, it's the people in Gadhafi's entourage."
The customs official said there were a dozen vehicles in Dao's convoy, and that among passengers were about 12 Gadhafi officials, 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. They headed for the capital, Niamey, a drive of some 600 miles (965 kilometers). The capital is in Niger's southwestern corner near the nation of Burkina Faso, where Gadhafi has been offered asylum.
Harouna said he saw the Tuareg leader 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.
A representative of the Libyan rebel's National Transitional Council in Sirte, Hassan Droua, said he had reports from witnesses inside the city that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi's son Moatassim had left Sirte, heading south toward the Niger border, after they were loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
The government of Burkina Faso sought to quash speculation that the convoys would proceed to that country, west of Niger. Foreign minister Djibril Bassolet had said last month that the landlocked West African nation would welcome Gadhafi. But Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore went on state television Tuesday night to say : "We have heard nothing about (Gadhafi's) whereabouts ... But if he were to show up at our border he will be treated in keeping with international law."
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 in July called on member countries to disregard the warrant. The AU and many African leaders have become increasingly critical of the court, accusing it of targeting Africans. But Gadhafi and Burkina's President Blaise Compaore fell out years ago.
"There is no longer a Guide in Libya," Traore said. "We have recognized the NTC."
Western officials said they did not have any information about the convoy. Harouna, the newspaper owner, said the pro-Gadhafi troops accompanying Boula were heavily armed.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali; Angela Charlton in Paris; Matthew Lee in Washington and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.