NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — A large convoy of Libyan soldiers loyal to ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi crossed the desert border into Niger and rolled into the frontier town of Agadez late Monday, a resident who is the owner of a local newspaper said.
The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, who saw them arrive.
At the head of the convoy, he 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.
The toppled Libyan leader is known to have used battalions of Tuareg fighters who have long-standing ties to Gadhafi. His 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 and where the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy. 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 and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month, though 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 Bani Walid, but have held back on a final assault in hopes of avoiding a bloody battle for the desert town some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The rebels say a small but heavily armed force of pro-Gadhafi fighters — at least some of them high-ranking members of his ousted regime — have taken up defensive positions in the town.
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.