THE HAGUE -- The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Friday that he had been in indirect contact with Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of Moammar Gadhafi and his onetime heir apparent, about turning himself in to face trial before the court.
The prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he did not know Gadhafi's whereabouts, and he did not identify the parties who were conveying messages for him.
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo also did not make clear whether the informal contacts had been initiated by Gadhafi, who has previously ridiculed the court as a tool of foreign powers hostile to the Gadhafi government. The court issued arrest warrants four months ago, at Mr. Moreno-Ocampo's request, for Moammar Gadhafi, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, and Abdullah al-Sanousi, the former leader's intelligence minister and brother-in-law, on charges of systematically killing civilians during the early days of the Libyan uprising.
There has been speculation that Seif Gadhafi, who has eluded capture by the rebels who overthrew his father in late August, may have undergone a change of heart about turning himself over to court custody after his father was seized by rebel fighters, brutalized, and killed Oct. 20 in his hometown of Sirte.
"Through intermediaries, we have informal contact with Seif," Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said. "The office of the prosecutor has made it clear that if he surrenders to the ICC, he has the right to be heard in court, he is innocent until proven guilty. The judges will decide."
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo also said that the court was considering the possibility of intercepting any plane that might be transporting Gadhafi.
"We know he has a different option because apparently there is a group of mercenaries willing to move him to a country, probably Zimbabwe," the prosecutor said. Some of the mercenaries may be from South Africa, he said.
The 39-year-old was reported to be heading through the desert to Mali, where al-Senoussi fled Wednesday.
An adviser to the president of Niger said Gadhafi should cross the border into Mali later Friday or Saturday.
The adviser in Niger said Gadhafi was driving through the desert across an invisible line that separates Algeria from Niger. He said Seif al-Islam is being aided by Tuaregs, nomadic desert dwellers who supported Moammar Gadhafi and were angered by the manner of his death.
In Mali, Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said he had no information about Seif Gadhafi's whereabouts but that if he were to enter Malian territory, its government would respect any international arrest warrant. "Whatever happens, Mali will respect its obligations in relation to the International Criminal Court. We are absolutely clear on that."
Niger's government in the capital ,Niamey, has vowed to support the ICC, but 400 miles north in a region where cross-border allegiances among Tuareg nomads often outweigh national ties, the picture looks different.
"I am ready to welcome him in. For me, his case is quite simply a humanitarian one," said Mohamed Anako, president of the council of Agadez region. "Libya and Niger are brother countries and cousins. You find the same communities in Libya as you do in northern Niger -- so we will welcome him in."
Mr. Anako, who said only that he had heard "talk" of Seif al-Islam being in the area, was not alone in his plans to support Gadhafi.
"We are ready to hide him wherever needed," said Mouddour Barka, a resident of Agadez in northern Niger. "We are telling the international community to stay out of this business and our own authorities not to hand him over -- otherwise we are ready to go out onto the streets and they will have us to deal with."
The only remaining Gadhafi son still to be accounted for, Seif has been a focal point of intense rumor and speculation during the week since his father was killed.
Human rights groups, who have expressed growing alarm over evidence of reprisal killings and abuse committed by anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya, urged swift action in locating and arresting Gadhafi.
"The gruesome killing of Moammar Gadhafi last week underscores the urgency of ensuring that his son, Seif al-Islam, be promptly handed over," said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.
An uncorroborated account in Beeld, an Afrikaans-language South African newspaper, said Gadhafi might be traveling under the protection of South African mercenaries, Agence France-Presse reported.
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo also said that there was "a group of mercenaries" willing to move Gadhafi to an African country where the government does not cooperate with the international court.
Among Seif al-Islam's six brothers, Muatassim and Khamis, military officers who commanded their own brigades, died during the uprising. The anti-Gadhafi forces said they killed Khamis in August as he and his bodyguards tried to break through a rebel checkpoint. Muatassim died while in the custody of former rebel fighters following the battle for Sirte last week.
As of a week ago, another military brother, Saadi, had sought refuge in Niger. Moammar Gadhafi's other children, Mohammed, Hannibal and his daughter, Aisha, fled to Algeria, and Seif al-Arab was believed to have been killed in an air raid in Tripoli.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, to investigate events in Libya in February. The council's action was necessary because Libya did not recognize the court's jurisdiction and has not ratified its founding treaty. But after the victory of rebel forces, it was unclear whether the National Transitional Council now governing Libya would seek to have Seif Gadhafi handed over for trial in his own country or let the international court proceed with its case.
The court, which began work in 2002, has indicted alleged warlords or political leaders in seven African countries, including the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of genocide in the Darfur region. It has no police force of its own and relies on the law enforcement agencies of member states to make arrests.
It has not yet delivered a verdict in any of the cases.