Secret diplomatic moves were under way last night to enable Col Muammar Gaddafi to leave Libya and seek temporary asylum in a sympathetic country.
A convoy of vehicles said to be carrying cash, gold and senior members of Gaddafi's inner circle travelled across the Libyan border and into Niger late on Monday, sparking a diplomatic scramble to resolve his fate.
Talks have been taking place over a deal to ensure the deposed dictator escapes a final reckoning with the rebels, so sparing Libya any further bloodshed.
However, it is understood that the negotiations have yet to resolve the former leader's final destination.
"The deal isn't cooked yet," an official familiar with the negotiations said. Claims that the talks were being brokered by South Africa were denied.
Last night, the tiny Saharan state of Burkino Faso appeared to have got cold feet on the suggestion that it might let Col Gaddafi into its capital. Its officials told diplomats that its position as a signatory to the International Criminal Court meant it was not in a position to give Gaddafi cast-iron guarantees on his status.
"We cannot grant him asylum because for the past three years we have not had good relations with him," said government spokesman Alain Traore. "We don't see why we would stick our neck out for him and create problems for ourselves."
Western officials said Gaddafi was continuing to refuse the offer of a back-door escape from the encroaching rebels and that they did not believe he had been on the convoy that crossed into Niger. Those who had fled so far were senior Gaddafi commanders and state propaganda officials.
"There is no way that members of the Gaddafi family are on that convoy," one official said. Everything is indicating that Gaddafi will not take some sort of back-door exit no matter how often it is pressed on him.
Washington also dismissed the speculation that a deal was sealed and reminded the small, impoverished states in the frame that leading Libyans were subject to a travel ban.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said senior officials of the ousted regime were in the convoy, but added: "We do not believe that Gaddafi himself was among them."
There had been French-led pressure on Nato planners not to target the fleeing convoy.
"The French have been very active within Nato to ensure that the convoy, while it was tracked, was not subject to any airstrikes or other action to stop it leaving," one official said.
The French military had hinted in Paris that Gaddafi and/or his son, Saif al-Islam, were holding open the option of joining the convoy at the last minute. Gérard Longuet, the French Defence Minister said.
"It it is highly likely he is alive, and I don't think he is seeking to stay in the country."
A Nato spokesman pointedly declared the Alliance would not attack Gaddafi loyalists that were clearly leaving Libya and the field of battle.
"Nato continually receives reports from various sources regarding weapons, vehicles and even convoys of vehicles moving throughout Libya," said Col Roland Lavoie, a Nato spokesman:
"We do not discuss the surveillance and intelligence that we collect but we announce it publicly when we act on threats to the civilian population.
"Our mission is to protect civilians not to track and target hundreds of fleeing regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and displaced people.
"When movements of troops or vehicles represent a threat to civilians or civilians centres we take action."
Meanwhile, Col Gaddafi's relatives in Algeria have been ordered not to undertake public or political activities while they are in the country. (© Daily Telegraph, London)