TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) — Tribal elders from one of Moammar Gadhafi's last strongholds were trying to persuade regime loyalists holed up there to lay down their arms, the elders said during Tuesday talks with rebel negotiators, hours after a large convoy of heavily armed Gadhafi soldiers crossed the desert into neighboring Niger.
The elders left the besieged town of Bani Walid to meet with rebels in a tiny mosque about 40 miles (60 kilometers) away.
"The revolutionaries have not come to humiliate anyone. We are all here to listen," Abdullah Kenshil, the chief rebel negotiator, said at the start of the meeting. Then, in a message clearly intended for the hardcore Gadhafi 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."
Gadhafi loyalists have been holed up in several towns, including Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town.
The four tribal elders at the meeting said rumors were circulating in Bani Walid that the rebels were going to rape the women of the town and kill the people.
"Bani Walid is split into two groups," said Moftah al-Rubassi. "The first and the majority want peace. The second, these are people who have been implicated (as part of Gadhafi's regime), either by blood or money, and they are cowards."
He said quickly restoring the city's basic services — it has had no water or electricity for many days — would assure residents of the rebels' intentions. The rebels said that would happen as soon as possible.
Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but speculation has centered on his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha in the far south.
Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant in a Tuesday phone call to the Syrian TV station al-Rai, saying the ousted dictator was "in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya." Ibrahim, who the rebels believe was in Bani Walid, said both Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.
"We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs," he said. "We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO," he said, though the regime effectively collapsed more than a week ago.
Late Monday, meanwhile, a large convoy of Gadhafi loyalists rolled into the central Niger town of Agadez, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the local newspaper. The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Harouna, who saw the arrival.
The convoy left Tuesday morning for Niger's capital, Niamey, 950 kilometers (about 600 miles) to the south.
At the head of the convoy, Harouna said, was Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, a native of Niger who led a failed war of independence on behalf of ethnic Tuareg nomads a decade ago. He then sought refuge in Libya and was believed to be fighting on behalf of Gadhafi.
It was not immediately clear if the convoy included any members of the Gadhafi family or other high-level members of his regime.
Gadhafi is believed to have financed the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Niger. African nations where Tuaregs represent a significant slice of the population, like Niger, have been among the last to recognize the rebels that ousted Gadhafi.
Gadhafi remains especially popular in towns like Agadez, where a majority of the population is Tuareg.
Harouna says the pro-Gadhafi soldiers accompanying Boula were coming from the direction of Arlit.
The isolated desert that stretches north of Arlit borders both Libya and Algeria. Some members of Gadhafi's family, including his wife, his daughter Aisha and two of his sons, recently sought refuge in Algeria.
A rebel spokesman for Tripoli's military council said the rebel leadership was aware of the convoy but had few details.
"It was not a large number of soldiers. We think it was a protection team of some sort," Anis Sharif said.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance did not have any immediate information about the convoy.
NATO warplanes don't normally patrol that deep south in the Sahara, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with standing alliance policy.
NATO reported bombing several sites overnight near Gadhafi's Mediterranean hometown of Sirte, a region NATO has targeted heavily every day in recent days.
Rebel commander Fadl-Allah Haron, meanwhile, said Tuesday that the rebels were 40 kilometers from Sirte, and hearing reports from the town that Gadhafi forces were searching there for rebels.
"The mercenaries and Gadhafi forces are threatening people, taking over the rooftops of their houses to place snipers," he said. "The people in Sirte are willing to join us but the mercenaries are threatening them"
He said that Gadhafi's son, Muatassim, who was his father's national security adviser, was believed to be in the town.
The rebels hold most of Libya and have sketched out plans for a transition to democratic rule that would begin with a "declaration of liberation" that was likely to come before Gadhafi's strongholds are defeated and he is captured.
Associated Press writers Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Maggie Michael in Cairo and Karin Laub in Tripoli contributed to this report.