NIAMEY, Niger – A large convoy of Libyan soldiers accompanied by Tuareg tribal fighters left the central Niger town of Agadez on Tuesday and drove toward the capital but it wasn't clear if Qaddafi family members were in the heavily armed group, the owner of a private newspaper said.
Abdoulaye Harouna, owner of the Agadez Info newspaper, said he saw the group arrive Monday in several dozen pickup trucks. He said Tuesday morning that they were headed toward the capital, Niamey, a drive of some 600 miles (965 kilometers). The capital is in Niger's southwestern corner near the nation of Burkina Faso, where toppled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has been offered asylum.
At the head of the convoy, Harouna said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Qaddafi.
The government of neighboring Burkina Faso said late last month they would recognize the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council. Foreign minister Djibril Bassolet also said the landlocked West African nation would welcome Qaddafi to Burkina Faso "if he wishes it."
Foreign officials said they did not have any information on the convoy. Harouna says the pro-Qaddafi troops accompanying Boula were well-armed.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the ministry did not know who was in the vehicles.
"We have no more information than you do," he told a reporter. "We are monitoring the movement of these vehicles, and we will see."
Qaddafi's regime is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Qaddafi.
Qaddafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, a Sahara Desert market town where a majority of the population is Tuareg. There, the ex-ruler is remembered for his largesse and for his assistance to the Tuareg minority during their fight for autonomy.
Harouna said the pro-Qaddafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit. The desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Qaddafi's family, including his wife, his daughter and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Qaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been on the run since losing control of his capital, Tripoli, last month. The rebels say at least two of his sons had been in the town of Bani Walid, one of the last remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Qaddafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.
Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town as rebel leaders tried to negotiate a surrender deal.
Most of Libya has welcomed the uprising that swept Qaddafi from power, though rebel forces backed by NATO airstrikes have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.
The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.