Moammar Gadhafi's intelligence chief who is wanted by Interpol fled to Mali overnight after making his way across Niger where he has been hiding for several days in the country's northern desert, an adviser to Niger's president said Thursday.
The official, who could not be named because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said that Abdullah al-Senoussi entered Mali late Wednesday via the Kidal region, which shares a border with Niger. He is guarded by a unit of about a dozen people and arrived in a convoy piloted by ethnic Tuaregs from Mali.
The adviser said that Gadhafi's hunted son, Seif al-Islam, is also on his way to Mali and is traveling across the invisible line separating Algeria from Niger. The area, a lawless expanse of dunes stretching for hundreds of miles, has been used for years by drug traffickers as well as an offshoot of al-Qaida and has nearly no government presence.
"Senoussi is in Mali," said the adviser, an influential elder in the ethnic Tuareg community which overwhelmingly supported Gadhafi and remained loyal to him despite Niger's official stance backing the country's new rulers.
"Seif is going to Mali too. He is right now between Niger and Algeria. He is in the territory at the frontier between the two, heading to Mali," the adviser said. "For the moment, they do not plan to approach the government. They are protected by the Tuaregs ... and they are choosing to stay in the desert."
The region through which they traveled is the traditional home of the Tuaregs, the desert dwellers whose members live in the nations abutting the Sahara desert from Mauritania in the east, through Mali, Niger, Libya and Chad. The group felt a kinship with Gadhafi who elevated the nomadic life by pitching his tent in the courtyards of four-star hotels in Europe, and hundreds of Tuareg youth from both Mali and Niger traveled to Libya to fight as Gadhafi's hired guns in the final months of the conflict.
Videos posted online showing how Gadhafi was abused after he was caught, and his body after he was killed, have deeply offended Tuareg communities throughout Africa.
Starting at dinnertime Wednesday, Tuareg elders met in Agadez to discuss the conflict posed by the arrival of Gadhafi's most trusted collaborators in light of the Niger's government's commitment to hand over anyone wanted by the world court. Both the son and the intelligence chief are wanted by the International Criminal Court which issued warrants for their arrest in May for crimes against humanity committed during the monthslong struggle for power in Libya.
About 30 other regime loyalists, including another Gadhafi son, al-Saadi, fled to Niger in September, but were apprehended by Niger's government and placed under house arrest.
In Mali, the Director of State Security Hildebert Traore said he could not confirm that the fugitive intelligence chief had crossed into the country.
"Up to now, we have not been able to determine the position of Mr. Sanoussi, whether he's in our territory or someone else's," Traore said. "People like him usually take care to contact the authorities of the country in question before entering it, but he has not contacted us to say that he's coming."
Observers in Niger and Mali suspect that the wanted members of Gadhafi's regime did not stop in Niger because of worries that the government will hand them over to the International Criminal Court, or ICC. In Niger's capital, the chief of staff of President Mahamadou Issoufou reiterated the government's position.
"We are hearing the same reports as you, that Seif is in our zone. But our security forces have not run into him," said Massoudou Hassoumi. "The day that we run into him we will arrest him. He is pursued by the ICC, and we will hand him over in keeping with our international obligations."
In Mali, a tribal elder from the country's north where the fugitives are believed to be hiding, said that he doesn't think Mali will shield them from the ICC.
"People on the ground are saying that Senoussi is there," said the elder who asked not to be named because of the delicate nature of the issue.
"I don't know if Gadhafi's son is there too. It's a small group of vehicles which is to the northeast of Kidal Town. It's possible that they are with other Tuaregs who have returned from Libya," the elder said. "I think they know if they came here that Mali is going to hand them over to the ICC. In fact I think that's why they came here because they want to be safely handed over."
Niger's government, which is heavily dependent on aid, has been put in an impossible spot, forced to choose between its obligations to the international community and its powerful Tuareg community. The problem is similar in Mali, but President Amadou Toumani Toure is at the tail-end of his second term and is not seeking re-election, making him possibly freer to choose a course of action without fear of political repercussions.
Martin Vogl contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.