Muammar Gaddafi's wife and three of his children fled Libya last night as thousands of rebels massed on the outskirts of the former dictator's home town in preparation for an assault on the regime's final stronghold.
The Algerian authorities said yesterday that Colonel Gaddafi's wife Safia, sons Mohammed and Hannibal and his daughter Aisha had crossed their border in a symbolic sign of the disintegration of the upper echelons of the 42-year dictatorship.
The whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi himself remained unknown last night, along with those of his surviving sons who have led the rearguard action against the rebellion.
There were earlier suggestions that he was holed up in Sirte, the last stronghold for the regime, preparing for a desperate final battle. An Italian news agency had reported that Libyan diplomats in Rome believed he was in the town of Bani Walid south-east of Tripoli with two of his sons, Saadi and Saif al-Islam.
One rebel commander said he believed Gaddafi was with Touareg allies close to the Algerian border.
News of the flight of the Gaddafi family was the first concrete information that has emerged of his coterie since the rebels's swift and dramatic taking of the Libyan capital a week ago. The failure to find Colonel Gaddafi has cast uncertainty over the rebel success.
The Egyptian news agency MENA reported over the weekend that six armoured Mercedes cars carrying Colonel Gaddafi's sons or other top regime figures had crossed the border at the south-western Libyan town of Ghadamis to neighbouring Algeria over the weekend.
"The Touareg are supporting Gaddafi so I think he's there," rebel leader, Brig Gen Abdusalam al-Hasi, told the Daily Telegraph.
Algeria had initially denied the reports. However, the foreign ministry has now told the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and the head of the rebel government, the Transitional National Council (TNC), according to Algerian media.
If the reports are true, the TNC will "demand that Algerian authorities hand them over to Libya to be tried before Libyan courts," said Ahmed Jibril, an aide to TNC head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil.
Another rebel spokesman described it as "an act of aggression" and demanded their extradition.
One of the sons, Mohammed, was captured last week while he was being interviewed but in an embarrassing episode for the rebel leadership, he managed to escape.
Colonel Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam last night remained at large. Rebels claimed yesterday that another son, Khamis, had been killed, but there had been similar previous reports of his demise which proved to be wrong.
Gaddafi's wife Safia Farkash is the mother of seven - all but one - of the dictator's children. Fleeing sons Mohammed and Hannibal, who embarrassed his father after hitting the headlines for his luxurious lifestyle and acts of violence, were not central figures in the regime. Hannibal was arrested in 2008 in Switzerland for mistreating his servants in a luxury Geneva hotel.