TRIPOLI Muammar Gaddafi has probably left the Libyan desert town of Bani Walid and is heading further south, with the help of loyalist tribes, toward Chad or Niger, a senior military official in Libya's new leadership told Reuters.
Hisham Buhagiar, who is coordinating efforts to find the former Libyan leader, said reports indicate he may have been in the region of the southern village of Ghwat, some 950 km (590 miles) south of Tripoli and 300 km north of the border with Niger, three days ago.
"He's out of Bani Walid I think. The last tracks, he was in the Ghwat area. People saw the cars going in that direction .... We have it from many sources that he's trying to go further south, toward Chad or Niger," Buhagiar said in an interview late on Tuesday.
Gaddafi, who was ousted from power in August after an February uprising against his rule spread to the capital Tripoli, is believed to be traveling in a convoy of some 10 cars and may be using a tent as shelter, Buhagiar said.
"It's the tent. We know that he doesn't want to stay in a house, so he stays in a tent. People say the cars came, and then they made a tent," he said, adding that his sources had not seen Gaddafi themselves.
Earlier on Tuesday, military sources from France and Niger told Reuters scores of Libyan army vehicles recently had crossed the desert border with Niger, in what may be a bid by Gaddafi to seek refuge in a friendly African state.
Gaddafi has long touted his tribal, desert roots, and even received foreign dignitaries in a tent. He also has portrayed himself as an African leader and has boosted his influence in Africa through loans, aid and diplomatic contacts.
The United States said it believed the convoy that had crossed into Niger was carrying senior members of Gaddafi's entourage but not the fallen leader himself.
Niger is a poor and landlocked former French colony adjacent to Burkina Faso, which has offered Gaddafi asylum.
Libya's new leadership has relatively little influence in the country's south due to the loyalty of the region's tribes to Gaddafi, but Libya's new leaders have contacts with some members in each of them, Buhagiar said.
Tribes in the region include the Owlad Suleiman, the Ahdayrat and the Touareg, he said.
"I would say some of the tribes we have a majority, some a minority," Buhagiar said, adding that anti-Gaddafi fighters could not simply move south to hunt Gaddafi without the tribes' approval.
"When we do it we have to organize with our loyalists in those tribes. Otherwise we will be intruders," he said.
Some of the tribes are spread across the Sahara region, and some members are loyal to Gaddafi because he invited them to live in Libya, Buhagiar said.
"Most of the loyalists to Gaddafi in this war were like this, he gave them land to stay. These tribes believe that if the system changes, we will kick them out, that's why they stayed longer with him."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)