Moammar Gadhafi's intelligence chief, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, has slipped into the desert nation of Niger and is hiding in the expanse of dunes at the Niger-Algeria border, a Niger presidential adviser said late Wednesday.
Abdullah al-Senoussi entered Niger several days ago in a convoy piloted by Tuaregs, the traditional desert dwellers who remained fiercely loyal to Gadhafi until the end, the adviser, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, told The Associated Press by telephone from Niger.
Al-Senoussi, Gadhafi's long serving intelligence chief, long played a key role in maintaining Gadhafi's control in Libya. A much less public presence than flamboyant Gadhafi, al-Senoussi is believed to have been the mind behind the most brutal crackdowns on perceived threats to the regime.
The Niger official _ an influential leader of the Tuareg community _ said he is in touch with Tuaregs that are in contact with the convoy. Al-Senoussi is one of two surviving members of the Gadhafi regime that are the subjects of international arrest warrants. The second is Gadhafi's son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam, whom the official said is also in the area, but is still in the triangle of sand just north of the Niger border, between Libya and Algeria.
"Senoussi? He's already in Niger, but he's not near the towns," the official said. "Where is he headed? We don't have any details on that. In any case, he can't come to the towns (without getting caught). He entered sometime ago _ it's been a few days. He's hiding. His driver? Other Tuaregs," he said. "They (Senoussi and Seif al-Islam) are traveling in separate convoys."
The information was confirmed by Serge Hiltron, owner of Radio Nomad, a radio station operating in Niger's north, a region dominated by the Tuaregs.
"It's like the story of the cat and the mouse, and we're waiting for him (al-Senoussi) to come out of his hole. He can't stay there forever," Hiltron said by telephone from the northern town of Agadez. "For them (al-Senoussi and Seif al-Islam) the area that is safest is this buffer zone between Algeria, Libya and Niger _ it's the most secure. But they can't stay there forever. With the protection of the Tuaregs they can last a while though."
Niger's government spokesman was not immediately available for comment. His assistant, communications adviser Ousmane Toudou, said there had been no official statement as of late Wednesday.
The Tuaregs in Niger as well as in Mali have led repeated rebellions against the governments of those countries which were reportedly financed by Gadhafi.
During the drawn-out battle for control of Libya, hundreds of Tuareg youth from both Mali and Niger enlisted in Libya's army to try protect Gadhafi's grip on power.
Niger's government has publicly said that they will abide by their obligation to the International Criminal Court and hand over any members of the Gadhafi regime wanted for war crimes. The country's democratically elected government is heavily dependent on foreign aid, but its people have long supported Gadhafi.
In May, the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and al-Senoussi, accusing them of crimes against humanity for targeting civilians during the Libyan civil war.
The three men ordered, planned and participated in illegal attacks, the court's chief prosecutor said, sending forces to attack civilians in their homes, shoot at demonstrators with live ammunition, shell funeral processions and deploy snipers to kill people leaving mosques. Gadhafi was killed in his hometown of Sirte on Oct. 20.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she couldn't confirm al-Senoussi's whereabouts. But she said the U.S. was in ongoing discussions with Libya's neighbors on protecting their borders and detaining individuals who are wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Asked about reports that al-Senoussi and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi wish to surrender, Nuland said the U.S. was urging Libyan authorities that "when any Libyans with blood on their hands are apprehended, that they be treated in a manner that is just and meets international standards."
Al-Senoussi is also Gadhafi's brother-in-law through a marriage some say Gadhafi orchestrated to shore up support for his regime. Al-Senoussi is from Libya's south and a member of the Magarha tribe, one of the country's largest. Placing al-Senoussi in his inner circle was a way for Gadhafi to recruit Libyans who may not have originally supported a leader from a small, northern tribe.
Al-Senoussi's whereabouts have been unclear since the war's start, though he is believed to have helped command the regime's efforts to quash the uprising. Anti-Gadhafi fighters, however, reported seeing al-Senoussi in late August, after rebels seized Tripoli, in the southern city of Sabha, where he had set up a mourning tent for his son, who was killed in the war. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Ben Hubbard contributed to this report from Cairo.