Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rebels Promise Answers in Death of General; Islamist Militia Suspected

Updated at 7:15 p.m. edt

The Libyan rebel government is now claiming the rival group its forces overpowered in a long battle overnight at a Benghazi license-plate factory was a secret pro-Gadhafi sleeper cell that had been operating under its nose for months.

A TNC official contends the Al-Nidaa Brigade was responsible for a pair of prison breaks Friday in the rebels' capital Benghazi as chaos erupted over the execution of commanding Gen. Abdel Fatah Younes.

Some 200 to 300 inmates, among them pro-Gadhafi fighters and loyalists, escaped, according to the rebel's deputy interior minister, Mustafa al-Sagezli.

"These people took advantage of the chaos that resulted from the killing of Younis and entered and attacked the military prison and the (civilian) Kuwaitiya prison," al-Sagezli told the Associated Press.

Three TNC regulars were killed and eight injured, while the militia group had four dead and at least 12 injured in what amounted to about eight hours of small-arms warfare.

There were other signs the TNC was  having trouble with more rivals tribes and militia. Some Western journalists reporting the deep cracks in the opposition ranks the weekend turmoil over the assassination of the rebel commander resulted in some heavy-handed treatment by TNC leaders, The New York Times reports.

Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the TNC defense minister, even suggested journalists could be aligned with Moammar Gadhafi, the Times reported.

"We don’t know if anybody here is a fifth column," he told a room full of reporters at a Benghazi news conference. "It is very difficult to determine who is with you and who is against you in a time of conflict, because you don’t necessarily have to hold a weapon. With a word or a rumor they can cause a lot of deaths."

end update

Updated at 9:15 a.m. edt

Forces loyal to the Libyan rebel government and a rival militia clashed for five hours this morning in the opposition capital Benghazi after allied factions were ordered to come under Transitional National Council control.

As part of a crackdown on militia resulting from the murder of commanding Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes late last week, TNC forces took control of the Al-Nidaa brigade camp after a bloody small arms battle left four fighters dead and at least 30 others injured, the Financial Times reported.

The fighting erupted after the Al-Nidaa Brigade refused to lay down it arms. 

end update

The Libyan rebel government in Benghazi overnight blamed a militia leader for the murder of commanding Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes and two of his senior military advisers, claiming the suspect confessed.

The militia leader, who apparently commands the Islamist-leaning Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, is in custody. The men, who riddled the three bodies with bullets and then partially burned the remains, have not been apprehended.

"The head of the militia is imprisoned now," said Ali Tarhuni, minister of economic affairs for the rebel National Transitional Council told reporters in Benghazi. "It was not him. His lieutenants did it."

Many questions remain, including who at the TNC approved a judges' arrest warrant for Younes, a former defense minister for Moammar Gadhafi, who was at the Libyan dictator's side when he first came to power in 1969.

Fawzi Bu Kitf, head of the Union of Revolutionary Forces, a federation of armed militia operating in the east, named the suspect as field commander Mustafa al-Rubh. 

"He is a member of the Union as an individual," Bu Kitf told reporters, hoping to silence critics who have pointed the finger at him in the killing "Whatever was done was done through his own idea."

The militia leader was tasked with retrieving Younes from the frontline near the oil town of Brega to discuss “a military matter,” Tarehuni said at a news conference.

Younes also had a sometimes public feud with rival Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected and lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades before he returned to Libya earlier to join the rebellion. Khalifa has been accused by detractors of having ties to the CIA. 

Younes had been under fire for the slow progress the army was making under his leadership, and some rebels questioned whether he had truly ended his loyalty to Gadhafi.

The only rebel force on the move is in the west, where tribes of the Nafusa mountain region have had success defeating  Gadhafi forces. The Nafusa army has no particular loyalty tgo the TNC in far-away Benghazi, other than their opposition to Gadhafi.

The mysterious execution offered a look into Libyan tribal and factional differences -- one of the biggest concerns why many Western nations refuse to arm the rebels even though they have recognized their  government.

Younes' Obeidi tribe were livid at the killing, accusing the TNC of playing a role in what they believe was a sanctioned assassination.

The Obeidi tribe -- one of the largest in eastern Libya -- set up barricades and closed roads around parts of Benghazi for a while after it learned of the death of Younes.

The TNC claims it will disband militia groups and bring them into the fold of the stalled eastern army. That may be easier said than done, given tribal pride and egos.

Western governments backing the rebels are sweating out the episode, calling for unity in order to reach a swift end to the now five-month-old war. The rebel government has promised a thorough investigation and would release its findings to the public.

"Everything is under control. This is just a rough stage we are going through and me and my brothers in the TNC are sure we will get over it,"  Tarhuni said.

NATO warplanes, meanwhile, bombed three satellite dishes yesterday in Tripoli, but Libyan state TV remained on the air.

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