WASHINGTON The U.S. government on Tuesday urged Niger to detain senior officials from the Gaddafi government who it believes crossed into the country in a convoy from Libya, the U.S. State Department said.
Niger officials informed the U.S. ambassador that the convoy carried "a dozen or more" senior members of Gaddafi's government, but gave no indication that Gaddafi himself was among them, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.
"We have strongly urged the Nigerien officials to detain those members of the regime who may be subject to prosecution, to ensure that they confiscate any weapons that are found and to ensure that any state property of the government of Libya, money, jewels, etc., also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people," Nuland said.
She said the United States had also urged Niger to work with Libya's ruling interim council to ensure that its interests are served in bringing the convoy's passengers to justice.
"All of them would be subject to the U.N. travel ban which is why we're working closely with the government of Niger," Nuland said, adding that the two governments had had "a very good conversation about what needs to happen to them."
"Our understanding is that they are going to take appropriate measures so that they can take the steps that are necessary and to work in the future with the (interim council) on what is to be done with both the people and the property," she said.
The United States suspended all non-humanitarian assistance to Niger in 2009 after former president Mamadou Tandja changed the constitution to extend his rule, but resumed aid programs this year after Tandja was ousted by the military and replaced through elections.
Niger officials said Mansour Dhao, Gaddafi's personal security chief, crossed into Niger on Sunday and a U.S. national security official said Washington believed the convoy also carried several other prominent Libyan passengers.
A second U.S. official said that one of the convoys was of a "configuration" which suggested it was carrying high-ranking figures from Gaddafi's government.
However, this official said he had no information about Gaddafi himself traveling in the convoy or fleeing Libya, and Nuland said Niger had given no indication that any Gaddafi family members were among the passengers.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Gaddafi was "on the run" but that he had no precise information about his location. "I wish I knew," Panetta said.
The Pentagon has said previously it had no reason to believe Gaddafi had left Libya. Asked whether that assessment had changed, Panetta said only: "I don't have any information as to his location."
Military sources told Reuters that a convoy of between 200 and 250 vehicles had been escorted to the northern city of Agadez by Niger army personnel. U.S. officials said Gaddafi's government had close ties to Niger-based Tuareg rebels, some of whom had gone to Libya to help defend Gaddafi.
A French military source told Reuters it was possible that Gaddafi and his son and would-be heir, Saif al-Islam, could join the convoy later and head for neighboring Burkina Faso.
Nuland said U.S. diplomats had in recent days met formally with governments in all of Libya's neighbors to underscore the necessity that Gaddafi be brought to justice.
"We have been talking in recent days with all of the neighboring states in Libya about their U.N. Security Council obligations and those conversations will continue," she said.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, Andrew Quinn, Phil Stewart and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham)