Beleagured Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi is believed to have fled the country in a 250-vehicle convoy.

The vehicles were reported on Tuesday to have crossed Libya’s southern border into Niger, as rebel negotiators press loyalists in the desert town of Bani Walid to surrender peacefully before a Sept. 10 deadline.

Gaddafi’s rported departure could represent a shift in the balance of power after six months of conflict.

The convoy’s movements were reported by several news agencies quoting witnesses and military officials from France and Niger itself.

Reuters said the string of vehicles could have been part of a dramatic secret attempt by Gaddafi to find refuge in a friendly African state, possibly Burkina Faso, which has offered him asylum.

But other reports suggested the vehicles were carrying Tuareg fighters who had been paid to fight for him.

Reuters quoted an unidentified French source as saying Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, once his heir apparent, was considering joining the convoy on its way to the northern Niger city of Agadez. Both Colonel Qaddafi and his son face charges of crimes against humanity at the

International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A loyalist official said late Monday that Colonel Qaddafi was “in excellent health and in high spirits,” but his whereabouts remained a mystery.

Reuters said France may have brokered a deal between the rebels and Colonel Gaddafi but the French government declined to confirm the report. France was the first country to recognise the rebels who launched their uprising in February.

The rebels have played a central role along with Britain and the United States in the NATO air campaign to weaken Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.

NATO officials have declined to comment on the reported flight across the sands, citing it as confidential intelligence matters.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera television said Libyan forces had struck a deal with loyalist holdouts in Bani Walid and planned to enter the town later in the day.

Rebel forces had given Gaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid one week to surrender, and the rebels’ acting minister of defense, Jalal al-Dghaili, said talks with supporters of Colonel Gaddafi there were continuing.

Loyalists have since been seen fleeing Bani Walid, which is about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli.

Negotiations were continuing in the beleaguered holdout coastal city of Surt as well, said Abdulrahman Busin, the military’s press liaison.

Rebel forces remain 60 miles from Bani Walid on both eastern and western approaches to the small city, but had left a road open to the north to allow families to flee if they wanted to do so, rebels at checkpoints near the city said.

While rebels held their fire, NATO warplanes continued to attack, carrying out 52 airstrikes on Sunday, mostly in Surt. There were none that day in Bani Walid.

Meanwhile, rebel officials are gaining increasing confidence on non-military fronts.

On Monday, a group of rebel officials took a visiting United Nations envoy on a tour of their main detention centre, Jadida Prison, while others announced that water service had been restored to Tripoli, the capital. Also, the government’s acting economy minister said badly needed cash had

begun flowing in from abroad after some of the country’s foreign bank accounts were unfrozen.

Efforts to restore normality has been in earnest, even though the rebels’ top leadership remain either in the eastern city of Benghazi or abroad. Only 14 of the 42 members of the Transitional National Council have come to Tripoli as yet.

Nevertheless, in Tripoli shops and businesses are beginning to open and many rebel checkpoints have disappeared from the streets. The Libyan dinar’s value also soared against the dollar on the official market, leading to the collapse almost overnight of a parallel or black market in the currency.