A large convoy of about 250 armoured vehicles carrying loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi has crossed into neighbouring Niger, raising fresh speculations over the toppled Libyan leader's whereabouts.
Gaddafi or his sons were not spotted in the convoy that reportedly carried gold and cash and was escorted by Niger troops.
The convoy included officers from Libya's southern army battalions and pro-Gaddafi Tuareg fighters, and likely crossed from Libya into Algeria before entering Niger, sources said.
Niger's minister of internal affairs, Abdou Labo, however, denied that a Libyan convoy had entered his country. But he confirmed that Niger had given asylum to Gaddafi's internal security chief Abdullah Mansoor on humanitarian grounds.
Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, said information about the specifics of the convoy were contradictory, but it was certain that a convoy had crossed.
"What is significant is that none of the reports we have heard so far says anything about sighting of Gaddafi and his sons in the convoy."
Exile in Burkina Faso?
Niger's harbouring of wanted Gaddafi-regime officials is "a breach of the United Nations travel [restrictions] for most of these people", Aly Abuzaakouk, executive director of Libya Human and Political Development Forum, told Al Jazeera.
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He said Niger should "not side with the enemy of the Libyan people".
The US state department in a statement called on Niger to detain the Gaddafi loyalists who have entered the country.
A French military source said he had been told the commander of Libya's southern forces, General Ali Khana, may also be in Niger, not far from the Libyan border.
He said he had been told that Gaddafi and his son Saif would join Khana and catch up with the convoy should they choose to accept Burkina Faso's offer of exile.
Burkina Faso, a former recipient of large amounts of Libyan aid, had reportedly offered Gaddafi exile about two weeks ago but has also recognised the National Transititional Council (NTC) as Libya's government.
But Burkina Faso's government said on Tuesday that it had not received a request for exile from Gaddafi and the ousted leader was not expected in the West African state.
"Gaddafi in not in Burkina Faso and we have not been approached for any exile demand. Burkina (Faso) has not been informed of Gaddafi's arrival. We are not expecting him," Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore said on state television.
Mansour El Kikhia, chair of the political science department at the University of Texas, told Al Jazeera: "What is bothersome to me more than anything else is that Gaddafi is aided by some of Tuareg supporters."
"Gaddafi is going to cause mischief, and it is now imperative that the council [NTC] prepares for these contingencies."
Gaddafi has said he is ready to fight to the death on Libyan soil, although there have been a number of reports that he might seek refuge in an African nation.
'Attack on Bani Walid imminent'
Also on Tuesday, the NTC announced that Khaled Kaim, Gaddafi's deputy foreign minister, had been captured.
Meanwhile, the NTC's revamped efforts for a peaceful resolution to the standoff in Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold southeast of Tripoli, seemed to lead nowhere.
Mansour El Kikhia tells Al Jazeera about the implications if Gaddafi was in the convoy
During long hours of talks on Tuesday, NTC negotiators tried to convince representatives from Bani Walid that there would be no retributions if the the town surrendered peacefully.
But the representatives, upon returning to deliver the message, were fired at and forced to retreat to NTC territory.
Al Jazeera's Sue Turton, reporting from north of Bani Walid, said the situation seemed bleak, with a military attack pending.
"The five Bani Walid representatives went back with the assurances from NTC, but as they approached the city, they were fired upon. They quickly came back to the rebel territory to take shelter for the night," she said.
"We have talked to commanders and people here. They believe two of Gaddafi sons are still in the city, thats why no negotations work here."
Libyan fighters have surrounded the town and given remnants of Gaddafi forces two deadlines to surrender. Both the deadlines have passed.
Thousands of NTC fighters have been camping outside Bani Walid, about 150km southeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
NTC forces have also built a field hospital and deployed 10 volunteer doctors to prepare for the possibility of a fight, in case Gaddafi loyalists did not give up without a fight.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies