NIAMEY, Niger — A convoy carrying ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son al-Saadi has crossed into neighboring Niger, a spokesman for Niger's government said Sunday, the highest profile former regime figure to flee to the landlocked African nation.
Al-Saadi, the fugitive ruler's 37-year-old son, entered Niger in a convoy with nine other people, said Niger Justice Minister Amadou Morou. The vehicles were traveling south toward the outpost of Agadez, where other fleeing Libyan loyalists are believed to be holed up in a hotel.
"I wish to announce that one of Gadhafi's sons — al-Saadi Gadhafi — was intercepted in the north of Niger by a patrol of the Nigerien military," Morou told reporters late Sunday.
Morou said that al-Saadi "has no status at all" in Niger, indicating that he has not been granted refugee status, which is guarantees certain rights.
Since last week, several convoys carrying senior officials of the former Libyan regime as well as civilians and soldiers have made their way across the porous desert border into Niger. Among them were several of Gadhafi's top military officers, including his chief of security and the head of his southern command.
Niger has faced increasing scrutiny for allowing the former regime members onto its soil, and al-Saadi's arrival will likely intensify pressure on the country to hold the individuals and cooperate with Libya's new rulers. They want all Gadhafi's sons — and Gadhafi himself, who is on the run — to be turned over for trial.
The U.S. has already urged Niger to detain any individuals who may be subject to prosecution in Libya, as well as to confiscate their weapons and impound any state property, such as money or jewels, that were illegally taken out of the country.
While some senior former regime officials have managed to escape, Libya's new leaders have arrested several former high ranking regime officials since then-rebel fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21, effectively bring an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.
On Sunday, anti-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli captured the former head of the regime's external intelligence service, Abu-Zayd Dourda, said Anes Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council. A longtime Gadhafi insider, Dourda also served as prime minister in the 1990s.
As Libya's new leaders move to impose their authority in Tripoli, forces loyal to Gadhafi continue to hold out in three strongholds — Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, Sabha in the southern desert, and Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli.
There were claims that al-Saadi and Gadhafi's most important son, Seif al-Islam, were seen in Bani Walid after the fall of Tripoli.
Revolutionary forces battled their way back into Bani Walid Sunday, seizing control of the northern half of the town and fighting supporters of the fugitive dictator in the town center.
After a week of efforts to negotiate a peaceful surrender of Bani Walid, anti-regime fighters launched a two-pronged assault on the town that soon dissolved into street fighting. But Gadhafi supporters have put up fierce resistance, and forced former rebels to retreat Saturday amid a barrage of rocket and mortar fire.
Libyan fighters pushed back into the town Sunday, a day after retreating under heavy fire, said fighter Sobhi Warfali. He said revolutionary forces now control the northern half of the town and were battling regime loyalists in the center.
Resident Khalifa al-Talisi said "the rebels don't control the center yet, but everything from the city center to this (northern) side is liberated."
Around a mile (kilometer and a half) from the town center, a cluster of abandoned houses in the desert showed signs of fierce fighting. The charred hulk of a car stood in front of a still-burning home that sent plumes of black smoke into the air.
Single gunshots, which appeared to be from snipers, occasionally echoed across the dusty town, and the thud of mortar fire shook the ground.
"The Gadhafi loyalists are throwing mortars and snipers are shooting at us from the center of the city," said Abdul-Bari al-Mitag, a 23-year-old fighter returning from the front line.
Abdullah Kenshil, a negotiator for the former rebels, said loyalist forces that withdrew from several cities after the fall of Tripoli have regrouped in Bani Walid.
"For them, it is a matter of life or death," he said. "They don't care if residents are killed in the middle."
Kenshil also said Gadhafi forces killed two tribal leaders who had taken part in talks to end the standoff peacefully. That could not be independently verified. Despite the bloodshed, Kenshil said, "the door for peace is still open."
NATO, which has played a key role in hitting Gadhafi's forces over the six-month civil war, said Sunday that its warplanes hit a series of targets near Bani Walid a day earlier — a tank, two armed vehicles and one multiple rocket launcher. Airstrikes also pounded targets around Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and the towns of Waddan and Sabha in the southern desert.
Libya's new leaders have also been trying to broker a deal for the surrender of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown. But a deadline for the town's surrender expired Saturday, and a revolutionary commander taking part in the negotiations, Mustafa al-Rubaie, said "now all options are open."
Libyan fighters have advanced to within 20 miles (30 kilometers) west of Sirte, and in the east as far as the town of Harawa, some 35 miles (50 kilometers) from the city, according to al-Rubaie.
He said fighters from Harawa will lead the force into Sirte "because they are from the city and they are part of the Sirte people."
"I think it will not be a 100 percent peaceful takeover of Sirte. There will be pockets of loyalists," he said. "In general, the people of Sirte are all armed with light weapons, even youngsters."
Al-Rubaie said that over the past months, Gadhafi's forces which fled from all the eastern cities and from Misrata are all now concentrating in Sirte.
"We know that the are not going to give up easily," he said. "For them, it will be a matter of life or death." (AP)