JOHANNESBURG - A fugitive wanted by the International Criminal Court, Muammar Qaddafi's one-time heir apparent appears to have disappeared in the Sahara Desert's ocean of dunes and could remain hidden for months in an area more than twice the size of Texas.
Saif al-Islam Qaddafi may be plotting a counterrevolution, scheming about a getaway to a friendly country, or negotiating a surrender to the ICC. Nothing has been heard of him since sources on Oct. 28 said Tuareg nomads were escorting him the length of Libya and that he was close to the Mali border.
"My latest information is that they are not in Mali and they are not in Niger yet either," Malian legislator Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh said this week, adding to the mystery of his whereabouts.
Qaddafi, a 39-year-old British-educated engineer, could be deliberately feeding disinformation from a desert where national boundaries are unmarked and unpoliced and where smugglers and al Qaeda gunmen roam freely.
Analyst Adam Thiam, a columnist for Le Republicain newspaper in Mali, said life in the desert for long periods outside of isolated oases is nearly impossible, but that a zone in Mali has water, livestock and small game. However the area is used by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an extremist group which has "no love of the Qaddafi family," Thiam said. Qaddafi violently repressed Libya's own Islamist movement and was a longtime enemy of al Qaeda.
Qaddafi and his late father's former chief of military intelligence, Abdullah al-Senoussi, have reportedly been traveling in separate convoys escorted by Tuaregs, the hardy nomads who understand best how to survive in the desert. Loyalty to the ethnic group trumps nationality, and the Tuareg's traditional stomping grounds stretch across North Africa, from Morocco and Algeria to Libya and southwest to Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Qaddafi and al-Senoussi are both wanted by the ICC for allegedly organizing and ordering attacks in Libya that killed civilians during the revolt against Muammar Qaddafi.
More than a dozen countries in Africa don't recognize the international court, but even some that do ignore its arrest warrants amid criticism that the Hague-based court goes after a disproportionate number of Africans. Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, wanted for genocide and war crimes committed in Darfur, attended a conference in Malawi last month with no problem, though Malawi is a member of the ICC.
In the area where Qaddafi is believed hiding, only Algeria is not a signatory. Algeria was a staunch supporter of Muammar Qaddafi and has given refuge to his wife, a daughter and two other sons, but now is trying to establish ties with Libya's new leaders.
Qaddafi is "more problematic than the rest of the family for Algeria," said Libya's ambassador to South Africa, Abdalla Alzubedi.
He said he has no independent information about Qaddafi but said he does believe media reports that his convoy is carrying gold, diamonds and cash which could be his passport to freedom.
"I don't doubt that they have a lot of money," Alzubedi said. "They treated Libya like a private estate and their private bank. They could take any amount of money, any amount of gold."
South Africa's Beeld newspaper has quoted local mercenaries as saying a group of guns for hire is protecting Qaddafi. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has said South African mercenaries may be trying to spirit Qaddafi away to Zimbabwe, which does not recognize the international court.
Some fear Qaddafi could rally Tuareg fighters, newly and heavily rearmed while they fought to defend his father's regime, to stage an insurgency. Thiam said up to 500 Tuaregs in 130 vehicles had fled Libya to northern Mali after the fall of Moammar Qaddafi's 42-year-old regime. Hundreds of other Tuareg fighters have gone home to Chad and Niger.
Many Tuaregs are furious about how Qaddafi was captured and killed. Mosques in Tuareg towns across the Sahel dedicated last Friday's prayers to the memory of the slain Libyan leader, who used some of Libya's oil wealth to build mosques and religious schools across the region and who glorified the tribes' nomadic lifestyle.
A Western diplomat said Wednesday that he has information suggesting al-Senoussi crossed into northern Mali this week, though he cautioned that "a man like this could create false leads for people to follow." A Tuareg source said al-Senoussi was in northwest Mali on Monday.
On Oct. 28, a Tuareg leader said Qaddafi was nearing the Mali border and could cross into the country that night. These sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
That same day, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he was in indirect negotiations with Qaddafi about his possible surrender for trial. Libyan officials then announced that they want Qaddafi.
"We want to try Saif al-Islam in Libya," said military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani. "He committed his crimes here in Libya. He committed murder. He is our enemy."
Since then, nothing has been heard of Qaddafi.
The ICC has asked all countries to refuse over-flight rights to Qaddafi but the Sahara is dotted with remote landing strips used regularly by smugglers.
Qaddafi himself never spoke of leaving his homeland.
"We have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya," he told CNN Turk after rebels took the Libyan city of Benghazi in February.
After the rebels stormed into Tripoli on Aug. 21, they announced that they had captured Saif al-Islam. But he turned up in the middle of the night two days later at the luxury Rixos Hotel where journalists were confined, flashing a big smile and a V-for victory sign. Appearing confident and defiant, he got into a white limousine escorted by armored SUVs and took reporters on a tour of "the hottest spots in Tripoli."
That's the last time he was seen in public wearing a full beard in place of his usual designer stubble and dressed in camouflage trousers and a green T-shirt.