More high-level defectors from the army of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continued to cross the desert border into Niger, with officials confirming late Friday the arrival of four more officers.
Justice Minister Amadou Morou said at a press conference that the chief of staff of the air force as well as his pilot had arrived in Niger on Thursday night, as well as the commanders of two Libyan military regions. The minister said that, in addition, six civilians from Libya had also arrived. Morou declined to name the officers.
Morou also condemned an attempted attack on the Embassy of Niger in Tripoli on Wednesday night by a group of 20 armed men who tried to force their way in. He said the compound is now being offered protection by Libya's National Transitional Council.
Earlier on Friday, Libya's ambassador to Niger said his country's rebel administration wants Niger to stop giving refuge to fleeing officials. Ambassador Souleymane Ahmed Mohamed Moussa told The Associated Press that the NTC is sending a delegation next Thursday "to try to convince the Niger government not to grant political asylum to former officials of the Gadhafi regime."
The arrival of the four officers comes on the heels of the defection of Gadhafi's security chief, Mansour Dao, who arrived here Tuesday along with at least 12 others. Niger said it was allowing them to stay on humanitarian grounds, and that it was acting in consultation with the Libyan rebel administration.
But Libya's ambassador to Niger indicated other Gadhafi loyalists also have escaped to Niger over the long, desert border that the two countries share.
"Libya and Niger share a long border, and some armed elements have escaped with their weapons. The movement of these arms must be controlled and we need to recuperate them," he said.
Unconfirmed reports say Gadhafi's army commander for southern Libya, Gen. Ali Kana, is among those that recently escaped to Niger. The Africa Intelligence newsletter reported that Kana, a Libyan Tuareg, had crossed the border into Niger "along with his heavily armed troops."
Several sources in Agadez, Niger's border town that is the capital of its Tuareg desert tribe, said they had heard rumors that Kana was in Agadez but had been unable to confirm the stories.
Initial reports about the convoys from Libya speculated that it might be an advance team to smooth the way for an exit by Gadhafi himself. Asked if Gadhafi might try to come to Niger, the ambassador Moussa said it was possible.
"Gadhafi was still in Libya yesterday, according to our information. But he has many contacts in Chad and in Niger, he could try to come to one or other of those countries," he said.
Gadhafi had a Tuareg battalion in his army and recruited hundreds more fighters from Chad, Niger and Mali as he came under attack from NATO airstrikes and advancing rebels.
The Sahara Desert along the border between the two countries is largely barren, uninhabited and impossible to police. The Niger side is a lawless refuge for bandits who have kidnapped foreigners.
Roman Moktar, a Tuareg authority in Brussels who used to be a spokesman for the MNJ, a Tuareg rebel group, said he received a call Thursday informing him that Kana was considering defecting.
Tuaregs, he said, are angry at Kana because, even though he is a Tuareg, he had led an attack by Gadhafi loyalists on a Tuareg town in Libya. An untold number of Tuaregs were killed, Moktar said by telephone Friday.
"I was told that he was considering defecting because of enormous pressure from Tuareg elders," said Moktar, who now supports Libya's rebel administration.
Moktar said that Gadhafi had paid Tuareg leaders like Kana huge sums of money to recruit Tuareg mercenaries from Mali and Niger. He claimed that Kana recruited thousands of Tuareg shepherds, but never paid them.
"Many illiterate shepherds were massacred as a result of this," Moktar said. "It's my opinion that Kana won't be able to find refuge for long in Niger, if that is where he is."
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.