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Libya rebel leader’s death a mystery

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Details murky on Libya rebel chief death

  • The death of the top rebel commander in Libya stokes speculation of a rebel rift
  • An ex-ambassador says “revenge by Tripoli” is the “most likely scenario”
  • One expert says the death is a reminder of the rebel coalition’s fragility

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) — Uncertainty swirled across war-torn Libya Friday after the mysterious death of that country’s top rebel commander, with some asking whether his death is a troubling harbinger for the opposition movement.

Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis was killed after the main rebel organization in Libya, the Transitional National Council, sought to question him about military matters and allegations that he or those close to him had ongoing ties to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Younis’ supporters said.

Younis was killed along with a colonel and a lieutenant colonel, the Transitional National Council said in a prepared statement.

There are more questions than answers about the deaths, which have stirred speculation about whether they would cause a rift among opposition leaders.

“We really don’t know what happened yet,” said Marina Ottaway, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program. “Politically, it’s a reminder of how tenuous a coalition it is.”

Rebels have been battling government troops in a fight to oust Gadhafi, who has ruled the North African nation for nearly 42 years.

NATO has used air power to enforce a U.N. resolution protecting civilians from the regime, and world powers have announced their support for Libya’s rebel umbrella group.

Just this week the United Kingdom joined the United States and other Western powers in recognizing the Transitional National Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya, a decision that could steer millions of dollars to the opposition.

Younis served as interior minister in Gadhafi’s government until February, when he defected to the Benghazi-based rebel movement.

A onetime general in Gadhafi’s army, Younis told CNN in February that he switched sides after Gadhafi told him he planned to have Benghazi bombed — a move Younis said would have killed thousands.

A young man in a tan uniform who spoke after Friday Muslim prayers in Benghazi said on rebel TV that Younis “was assassinated by him like the other martyrs of Libya” and called for “revenge for everyone who took part in this crime.” It wasn’t clear who he was implicating in Younis’ death.

The man said that “knowing the truth of what happened to him and avenging his death is a debt every Libyan man and woman owes. My message to Mustafa Abdel Jalil is we will be with you on this path,” the man said, referring to the leader of the rebels’ government.

Alistair Burt, the British Foreign Office’s minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “Exactly what happened remains unclear.” He added that the “killing will be thoroughly investigated.”

“We agreed that it is important that those responsible are held to account through proper judicial processes.”

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya and associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme of the London-based Chatham House, said the “one scenario is revenge by Tripoli.”

However, Dalton said, the impact of the killing on the opposition movement depends on the facts that emerge about the killing.

“They’ve been promising it for a while,” he said of the Gadhafi government. “Right from the start, they’ve threatened people who’ve turned away. There are stories that AFY (Younis) had rebuffed approaches by Tripoli.”

There have been tensions between different parts of the opposition forces, Dalton said. So a “second hypothesis” is that a quarrel got “out of hand. But he warned that it is too soon to jump to grand conclusions about the significance of a “single episode.”

“We haven’t got much to go on,” he said. “I think our governments will find out soon.”

Ottaway, the Carnegie Endowment scholar, said the killing raises questions about the rebel council.

“It’s clear there are divisions” within the Transitional National Council, she said. “There are suspicions of some of the people who went from being close allies (of Gadhafi), as Younis was, to joining” the rebels.

The motives of those who switched sides have been questioned by people who weren’t convinced that they made the transition or that they were “playing games.” There has been speculation, she said, that Younis just might have been dealing somehow with Gadhafi.

“The main point perhaps is that the unity at the TNC is tenuous at best. This is a strange coalition at best,” she said. “They are very aware of the fact that they are not an organization that represents the entire country.”

As for how this killing affects the rebels’ military effort, Ottaway said it’s not clear how much control Younis had. The fighting, she notes, is not occurring in a hierarchical fashion, and independent militias are involved.

She points out that the killing occurred on the same day rebels embarked on an offensive in western Libya. The fighters said their forces had captured five towns and surrounded a sixth in the plains below the Nafusa mountain range, which borders Tunisia.

Mark Quarterman, a senior adviser and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation, said that while the facts aren’t in, the “potential implications” of the death are “very worrisome” and could help the Gadhafi regime in the short run.

The death has had the effect of “roiling rebel politics,” Quarterman said. There have been news reports that the killing has fomented anger among members of Younis’ Obeidi tribe.

Quarterman, an expert on the Libyan crisis, said this killing undermines the bet NATO powers have made to enforce the U.N. resolution protecting Libyans with the hope that the effort would give rebels space to defeat Gadhafi forces.

He noted that Younis had been engaged in a dispute with another rebel commander, Khalifa Hifter.

“They seem unable to take and hold territory. This makes things worse,” Quarterman said. “You can’t have a lot of faith and confidence in forces saying, ‘I’m the commander, no I’m the commander.’

“If this disarray does continue, this only benefits Gadhafi. And it makes the coming of a post-Gadhafi Libya that much more distant.”

There has been talk among world powers about negotiated settlements and scenarios that could include Gadhafi remaining in Libya after the conflict ends, Quarterman said.

The international sense that the conflict would end “fairly quickly” with “capitulation on the part of the Gadhafi regime is fading,” Quarterman said.

“As a result, the end game is seeming much more murky.”

This story is based on reporting from Ivan Watson in Tripoli, Libya and Joe Sterling in Atlanta, Georgia.


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