DJANET, Algeria (Reuters) - She came with her mother and brothers, fleeing across the Sahara from the wrath of her father’s nation. Reaching a remote oasis, she gave birth to a daughter and was gone again, deep into the desert in a caravan of luxury vehicles.
So goes the story of Aisha Gaddafi as told by Algerians living in the oasis town of Djanet, 1,500 km (900 miles) inland from Algiers. They said they saw little of the ousted Libyan leader’s family during their two-day stay last week, but would welcome other supporters of Gaddafi who arrived as refugees.
Like their prime minister, who said on Sunday that Algeria took pride in welcoming such “humanitarian cases,” locals in Djanet, 60 km (40 miles) from the Libyan frontier post of Ghat, said traditions of hospitality among desert nomads meant the fugitive women and their accompanying menfolk were sure of a welcome, whatever crimes Muammar Gaddafi himself is wanted for.
“She was well treated and received all the medical care she needed in the hospital,” said shopkeeper Sahraoui Safi, one of several of the town’s few thousand residents to recount fleeting glimpses of the Libyan convoy, with some dozen family members aboard, moving between the hospital and a tightly-guarded villa.
A man named Mohand, who runs a coffee shop near the clinic, said he saw a convoy of Libyan cars heading to the hospital on Monday: “I think Algeria has done the right thing, offering help and support to a refugee,” he said. “She is a refugee.”
Algerian officials said Gaddafi’s second wife Safia, along with her daughter Aisha and son Hannibal, as well as Mohammed, a son of Gaddafi by his first wife, crossed the border on Monday, August 29.
That Aisha, an international lawyer in her mid-30s, was about to give birth was a critical factor in letting them in.
The child, a girl, was born almost immediately, in the early hours of Tuesday, at the Efiri clinic, a simple medical facility on the outskirts of Djanet. Aisha and her new baby spent a second night in the town, at a secluded house, but then left.
A source in Algeria who was aware of arrangements for the Gaddafis but was not authorised to discuss them, told Reuters the family was now staying discreetly in the empty southeast of the country, probably in Illizi province, a territory the size of Italy with a population of only 50,000.
“Aisha is still in the area,” the source said. “I believe she is in Illizi province.”
The family will not find in the desert the sort of luxury lifestyle that has been revealed in the past fortnight in their abandoned homes in Tripoli.
Djanet has little to tempt the traveler. With midday summer temperatures hitting 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) in the shade, dusty chairs and tables stand in nearly empty cafes.
Historically a watering stop for camel trains crossing Africa’s great desert, it is now a scattering of flat-roofed brown houses among palm groves that creep up the boulder-strewn slopes of a low hill on which French colonial legionnaires built a small strongpoint, Fort Charlet, a century ago.
While there was no shortage of friction between Algiers and Tripoli during the four-decades of Gaddafi’s rule -- including a dispute over the border near Djanet -- the two countries share a post-colonial suspicion of Western power which fostered a certain solidarity between Gaddafi and Algeria’s ruling elite.
“Libya, a brother nation, is a nation with an ancestral history, a neighbouring people with whom we share a glorious past and a radiant future,” Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in defending giving shelter to the Gaddafis -- a move Libya’s new rulers called an act of aggression.
The government has ruled out taking in Gaddafi himself.
Gaddafi’s whereabouts are not known, but one of his remaining bastions of support in Libya is Sabha, a 500 km (300 mile) drive across the desert from Djanet. Algerian officials said Gaddafi called them and said he was in Ghadames, close to the border further north.
Hundreds of Libyans from Sabha and as from as far away as Tripoli have come to Djanet and other villages in Illizi, residents said, adding that many were supporters of Gaddafi.
They are keeping a low profile. When a Reuters reporter approached a group of people residents identified as visitors from Libya, they declined to speak.
Algerians say they are trying to accommodate the incomers as best they can, despite their own limited means.
The shopkeeper, Safi, said he had hosted a man he described as a cousin of Gaddafi in his home and sympathised with the plight of those fleeing their homeland.
“Some Libyans have lost everything overnight, it is a tragedy for most of them,” he said. “They never thought they would one day be refugees.”
Algeria has now closed the southern part of its border with Libya, according to a security source at the Debdeb crossing, near Ghadames.
The source said hundreds of Libyans entered Algeria in the days before the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council put up its red, green and black flag on the Libyan frontier post.
“Now that the NTC controls the border, it is difficult for Gaddafi and his aides to get to Algeria,” the source said.
Algeria is the only one of Libya’s North African neighbours yet to recognize the NTC as Libya’s new authorities. It says it will do so once there is a representative government.
Algerian officials say they are particularly concerned that Islamist militants have infiltrated the NTC and that al Qaeda’s North African wing will exploit the chaos in Libya to acquire weapons and explosives.
However, many Algerians have criticised the government for failing to embrace the anti-Gaddafi movement in Libya. Algerians have followed the conflict closely, and many share the view of others in the Arab world that Gaddafi was a despot.
Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff