Libya’s former rebels – now the country’s de facto rulers – claimed the exodus was a major flight by Gaddafi’s most hardcore backers from his final strongholds.
As the first group of a dozen vehicles pulled into Niger’s capital Niamey, a customs official confirmed that it included Mansour Dao, Gaddafi’s security chief and a key member of his inner circle, as well as around 12 other officials from what remains of the Gaddafi regime.
Other Libyan convoys had passed through Agadez, a town about halfway between Niger’s border with Libya and its capital in the far south-west.
Gaddafi himself was not in the convoys, Niger’s Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed said.
A significant flight by Gaddafi’s senior regime figures could bring an important shift as the opposition forces that swept into Tripoli on August 21 and toppled the leader struggle to shut down the last holdouts of his supporters.
Three major cities remain under Gaddafi’s sway – Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. The anti-Gaddafi leadership has been negotiating with tribal leaders in Bani Walid to try to arrange a peaceful entry of its forces into the city, but talks have made little headway amid deep suspicions between the two sides.
Opposition officials have depicted the populations in Bani Walid and the other towns as divided, with some prepared to surrender, some still backing Gaddafi and with a hard core of former regime figures forcing the towns to dig in.
If those hardcore figures flee in large numbers, it could reduce backing for Gaddafi among residents and open the door for an end to the stand-off.
Before news of the convoys emerged, Col Abdullah Hussein Salem, who is involved in the military negotiations and co-ordination for entering Bani Walid, said one of the options in the negotiations is to allow the Gaddafi supporters to get out of the town, without a chase.
But many in the new leadership depicted the move as a significant run for the border by Gaddafi’s inner circle.
Some members of Gaddafi’s family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
Negotiators met with tribal elders from Bani Walid, 90 miles from Tripoli, in talks that showed little progress and underlined the deep mistrust between the two sides.
“The revolutionaries have not come to humiliate anyone. We are all here to listen,” Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator, said at the start of the meeting.
Then, in a message clearly intended for the hardcore Gaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid, some of whom may be fearing rebel retribution, he added: “I say we are not like the old regime. We don’t take revenge and we don’t bear grudges.”
But the tribal elders said the city of 100,000 was swirling with rumours that the fighters would pillage. “There are youth who were fooled by a heavy media campaign. They carry weapons and they heard that the rebels want to rape their women and kill them,” said one tribal elder, Moftah al-Rubassi.
After the session, held at a mosque in the desert outside the city, the elders returned to Bani Walid to discuss the results with residents.