The International Criminal Court said on Saturday that Libya's Saif al-Islam Gadhafi was in contact via intermediaries about surrendering for trial, but it also had information mercenaries were trying to spirit him to a friendly African nation.
U.S. military and government representatives held security talks in neighbouring Niger with local officials in Agadez, which has been a way station for other Libyan fugitives, including another son of Moammar Gadhafi, Saadi. A Reuters reporter saw a U.S. military plane at Agadez airport.
A top Agadez regional official declined to say what the talks with the Americans were about, but spoke of escape plans by Saif al-Islam and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, both wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity.
"Senussi is being extricated from Mali toward a country that is a non-signatory to the [ICC]convention. I am certain that they will both [Senussi and Saif al-Islam]be extricated by plane, one from Mali, the other from Niger," said the official, who asked not to be named.
He said there were at least 10 airstrips in the north of Niger near the Libyan border that could be used to whisk Saif al-Islam out of the country.
A member of parliament from northern Mali, Ibrahim Assaleh Ag Mohamed, denied Senussi was in his country and said neither he nor Saif al-Islam would be accepted if they tried to enter.
The arrival of the U.S. delegation followed remarks by Mohamed Anako, president of Agadez region, who said he would give Saif al-Islam refuge. "Libya and Niger are brother countries and cousins ... so we will welcome him in," he said.
The ICC has warned Saif al-Islam, 39, apparently anxious not to be captured by Libyan interim government forces in whose hands his father Moammar Gadhafi was killed last week, that it could order a mid-air interception if he tried to flee by plane from his Sahara desert hideout for a safe haven.
The ICC's comments offered some corroboration of reports from Tripoli's National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders and African neighbours that he has taken refuge with Tuareg nomads in the sparsely-populated borderlands between Libya and Niger.
A group of about 100 people from a desert town near where Saif was last believed to be hiding demonstrated in Tripoli on Saturday, saying that towns and villages in the area were under constant attack from bands of pro-Gadhafi mercenaries.
"They are the men of Gadhafi and they are attacking villages, killing people, stealing cars," Mohammed Hassan told Reuters. "They don't recognize the new flag."
The demonstrators, from the town of Mausq in the southern Libyan desert, said they believed the men were from Chad. They had no information on the whereabouts of Saif al-Islam.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters in an interview that communication with Saif al-Islam was being made possible by "intermediaries," despite his remote location.
"There are some people connected with him that are in touch with people connected with us," Mr. Ocampo said during a visit to Beijing.
"We have some information that there is a mercenary group trying to help him to move to a different country, so we are trying to prevent this activity," said Mr. Moreno-Ocampo.
"We are also working with some states to see if we can disrupt this attempt. Some of them are South Africans allegedly."
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said the ICC was not making any deal with Saif al-Islam but was explaining through the contacts that he had to face trial because he had been indicted for war crimes. "He says he is innocent," said the prosecutor.
However, surrender is only one option for Saif al-Islam.
The Gadhafis befriended desert tribes in Niger, Mali and other poor former French colonies in West Africa. Other African countries received Libyan largesse during the 42-year rule of Mr. Gadhafi, a self-styled African "king of kings".
France, a backer of February's revolt against Mr.Gadhafi, reminded African states of their obligations to hand Saif al-Islam over to the international court.
"We don't care whether he goes on foot, by plane, by boat, by car or on a camel, the only thing that matters is that he belongs in the ICC," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, a swathe of arid states to the south of Libya, are all signatories to the treaty that set up the ICC. Algeria, which took in Saif al-Islam's mother, sister, brother Hannibal and half-brother Mohammed, is not a signatory. Nor is Sudan or Zimbabwe.
As well as enjoying protection from Tuareg allies who traditionally provided close security for the Gadhafis, Saif al-Islam may be in the company of mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, including possibly South Africa, NTC officials say.
A South African newspaper, in an unconfirmed report, said South African mercenaries were working to fly him out.
A bodyguard who saw Saif al-Islam as he fled last week from one of the last pro-Gadhafi bastions near Tripoli told Reuters that he seemed "nervous" and "confused." He escaped even though his motorcade was hit by a NATO air strike as it left Bani Walid on Oct. 19, the day before his father died in Sirte.
Three of Saif al-Islam's brothers were killed in the war.
The arrest or surrender of Saif al-Islam would bring a new prominence for the nine-year-old ICC, whose highest profile suspect to date is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who remains defiantly in office, defended by many fellow Africans.
Following Mr. Gadhafi's killing, probably by fighters who filmed themselves battering and abusing him, Western allies of Libya's new leaders urged them to impose respect for human rights.
EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek met with NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil in Tripoli on Saturday and both men said that human rights featured in their discussions.
"The head of the EU parliament urged us to sign all international conventions regarding respect for human rights, which we will do," Mr. Abdel Jalil said.
NTC leaders would like to run their own trials, but acknowledge that their writ barely runs in the deep south.
NATO countries, now winding up a mission that backed the revolt, have expressed little enthusiasm for hunting a few individuals across a vast tract of empty continent.
Saif al-Islam was once seen as a liberal reformer, architect of a rapprochement with Western states on whom his father waged proxy guerrilla wars for decades. But he responded with belligerent rhetoric after the revolt erupted in Libya.
The ICC accuses him of hiring mercenaries to carry out a plan, worked out with his father and Senussi, to kill unarmed protesters inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings elsewhere.
Niger's government in the capital Niamey has vowed to meet its ICC commitments. But 750 kilometres north in a region where cross-border allegiances among Tuareg nomads often outweigh national ties, the picture looks different.
Some of the tens of thousands of people who eke out a living in the Sahara, roamed by smugglers and nomadic herders, say there would be a welcome for the younger Gadhafi.
"We are ready to hide him wherever needed," said Mouddour Barka, a resident of Agadez. "We are telling the international community to stay out of this business and our own authorities not to hand him over – otherwise we are ready to go out on to the streets and they will have us to deal with."