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LIBYA: Officials deny Kadafi's wife, daughter have fled to Tunisia

A senior Libyan official denied Wednesday that the wife and daughter of Moammar Kadafi had left the country and entered neighboring Tunisia. He also denied reports that the nation’s top oil official had defected.

"It is just rumors," said Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaim of reports that Kadafi’s wife and daughter had left. "They are here in Tripoli."

Earlier, the Reuters news service cited a "Tunisian security source" as saying that Kadafi’s wife, Safia, and daughter, Aisha, had entered Tunisia on Saturday and were on the Mediterranean resort island of Djerba.

Timeline: Rebellion in Libya

Websites and broadcast outlets were buzzing with the report that even members of Kadafi’s immediate family were abandoning the leader as he faces a rebel uprising, NATO warplanes and potential arrest warrants on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminial Court at The Hague.

But Kaim told reporters here that the story was false, calling it the latest inaccurate report meant to "shake the will of the people."

He also refuted a widely disseminated story that Shukri Ghanem, who heads the Libyan state oil company, had left Libya with his family and had also fled to Tunisia.

Ghanem is currently in Vienna on official business, accompanied by his wife, while two married daughters remain in Tripoli, Kaim said.  The oil chief planned to go next to Cairo for meetings before returning to Libya, he said, adding that the Libyan  prime minister had spoken to Ghanem.

"He will be back very soon," Kaim said of Ghanem, who heads the nation’s largest revenue-generating sector. "He’s a national figure and I think he enjoys very good respect here in the country."

The U.S.-educated oil executive is not under any obligation to remain in his post, Kaim told reporters at the Tripoli hotel where foreign journalists are staying.

"If he wants to resign he is free," Kaim said. “If he wants to defect, he can make it public."

Many Libyan officials have abandoned the country since the rebellion against Kadafi’s rule erupted in February. Several have taken up senior positions with the rebel leadership and at least one, Musa Kusa, a long-time Kadafi confidante, is reportedly aiding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization map its bombing strikes on Libyan objectives, including Kadafi’s bunker compound in Tripoli.

Earlier Wednesday, Libya freed four Western journalists  who had been arrested more than a month ago while covering the fighting  in eastern Libya. The four were fined the equivalent of about $170 each and received suspended one-year prison sentences for having entered Libya illegally, said Moussa Ibrahim, the chief  government spokesman. The four were released to the Tripoli hotel housing the foreign press.

All  four appeared tired but were in good health, said one of the released journalists,  Clare Morgana Gillis, a U.S. freelancer who was writing  for the Atlantic magazine and USA Today. Also released were James Foley, a U.S. citizen working for the Boston-based GlobalPost news agency; Manuel Varela, a Spanish photographer who works under the name Manu Brabo;  and Nigel Chandler, a British freelancer who has worked for the BBC.

Several journalists are still unaccounted for in Libya, including Anton Hammerl, a photographer with Austrian and South African citizenships who reportedly went missing on April 5. No other foreign journalists remained in Libyan custody, Ibrahim, the government spokesman, said.

— Patrick McDonnell, in Tripoli, Libya

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