NIAMEY, Niger - A son of Muammar Qaddafi and three of his generals were trying to gain political asylum Wednesday in this poor, landlocked nation at Libya's feet, after a more than 1,000-mile drive across the vast desert that separates the two countries for what could be their only shot at refuge.
The generals are trying to pave the way for other Qaddafi supporters to follow, but one regime loyalist doubted that Qaddafi himself ever will, saying he would be comfortable enough living in the Sahara to stay there indefinitely.
"I know the Guide well, and what people don't realize is that he could last in the desert for years," Aghaly Alambo said, referring to Qaddafi. "He didn't need to create a hiding place. He likes the simple life, under a tent, sitting on the sand, drinking camel's milk. His advantage is that this was already his preferred lifestyle."
He added, "He is guarded by a special mobile unit made up of members of his family. Those are the only people he trusts."
Convoys carrying regime loyalists began arriving in Niger last week. The three generals, including the head of Qaddafi's air force and two of his regional commanders, reached Niamey, the capital, overnight Monday. They were joined Tuesday by al-Saadi Qaddafi, government spokesman Marou Amadou confirmed shortly after midnight on Wednesday.
Alambo, a rebel leader from Niger who fought for Qaddafi and who led the first convoy across the desert, said the commanders were pushed to leave Libya after a total breakdown in communication with the ex-ruler. Qaddafi was last in contact with his military leaders 3Â½ weeks ago and his whereabouts are not known, he said.
"It's been difficult because for some time now, there's been no communication in Libya - especially with our Guide. Maybe it's for his own safety. But for those of us in his entourage it's very difficult to know where he is? How he is? What is happening?" Alambo said at his home on the edge of this arid capital. "This has created a source of destabilization for his entourage."
The regime that Qaddafi tightly controlled for nearly 42 years unraveled once he was forced into hiding and no longer in touch with his field officers. Government officials say around 30 Libyan nationals including members of the fallen regime and their families are now in Niger.
Alambo, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group who became close to Qaddafi and is believed to have helped recruit dozens of Tuareg youths to fight during Libya's civil war, said there is no longer any coordination between the arms of the loyalist army.
He blamed last month's fall of Tripoli, the turning point of the civil war, on a betrayal by one of Qaddafi's trusted commanders. He said the head of security for Tripoli had defected to the rebel camp weeks earlier, even as he continued to lead the city's defense.
Instead of fighting, the commander ordered Qaddafi's troops to withdraw when the rebels were in sight, then passed on the GPS coordinates of remaining loyalist positions so NATO airstrikes could take them out, Alambo said. "It was at the very last minute that we realized there was no defense - there was nothing," he said.
Now, Alambo said, pro-Qaddafi forces are just hoping to save themselves.
He said members of Qaddafi's inner circle initially took cover in pro-Qaddafi bastions like Bani Walid and Sabha, but bolted for the border when they heard reports of brutal reprisal killings by former rebels, and when it became clear that Qaddafi could be in hiding for years.
Qaddafi's wife, daughter and several of his sons crossed into Algeria, prompting that country to close its border. The roads to Tunisia, Egypt, Chad and Sudan were too risky because portions are controlled by rebel forces. The only exit became Niger, through an ocean of white dunes, guided by Tuaregs like Alambo.
Ethnic Tuaregs, whose nomadic community spans the desert border of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad, are among Qaddafi's strongest remaining supporters, and are pushing Niger's government to grant political asylum to members of his regime.
Late Tuesday as the negotiations dragged into a second night, an official involved in the talks indicated that Niger was caught between the Tuaregs, who are politically powerful in the African country, and Libya's new leaders, who want all regime members handed over. That is especially true for al-Saadi Qaddafi, the ousted ruler's 38-year-old playboy son who was a special forces commander and is the subject of a United Nations sanction for commanding military units involved in repression of demonstrations.
Amadou, the government spokesman who is also the minister of justice, would not say whether the loyalists would be granted political refugee status, but suggested that returning them to Libya was not an option.
"These people have been received on humanitarian grounds. We didn't ask them to come here, and if they are here it's for humanitarian reasons. ... It's my opinion that you can't chase away someone that is fleeing a war," he said.
Niger has so far agreed to hand over only the three regime members wanted by the International Criminal Court: Qaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and his intelligence chief. None are known to be in Niger.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Nigerien authorities were working with Libya's Transitional National Council, led by the former rebels, on the issue of al-Saadi Qaddafi.
"Our understanding is, like the others, he's being detained in a state guest house," Nuland said, describing the detention as essentially house arrest in a government facility.
"Our primary focus on the ground in Niger is to facilitate discussion between the Nigeriens and the TNC," she said. "We have been doing that and trying to make it absolutely clear that it's up to Libyans what needs to happen here."