Adding to the confusion, the rebels had said hours earlier they had already detained the Commander, Abdel-Fattah Younis, on suspicion his family might still have ties to the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, raising questions about whether he might have been assassinated by his own side.
Such a scenario would signal a troubling split within the rebel movement at a time when their forces have failed to make battlefield gains despite nearly four months of NATO airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. It could also shake the confidence of the United States, Britain and several dozen other nations that have recognized the rebel council as Libya’s legitimate leaders.
Announcing the killing at a press conference where he did not take questions, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, Head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, called Younis “one of the heroes of the 17 February revolution,” a name marking the date of early protests against Col. Qaddafi’s regime.
He said two of the Commander’s aides, both Colonels, were also killed in the attack by gunmen and that rebels had arrested the Head of the group behind the attack. He did not say what he thought motivated the killers.
Younis was Col. Qaddafi’s Interior Minister before defecting to the rebels early in the uprising, which began in February. His abandoning of the Libyan leader raised Western hopes that the growing opposition could succeed in forcing out the country’s ruler of more than four decades.
Rebel forces, however, held mixed views of the man, with some praising him for defecting and others criticizing his long association with Col. Qaddafi.
Hours before the Commander’s death was announced, rebel military spokesman Mohammed Al Rijali had said Younis was taken for interrogation from his operations room near the front line to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Later, Mr. Abdul-Jalil presented a different scenario, saying Younis had been “summoned” for questioning on “a military matter,” but that he had not yet been questioned when he was killed.
He also called on all rebel forces to intensify their efforts to find the men’s bodies, but did not explain how the deaths were discovered.
Further complicating matters, another Security Officer, Fadlallah Haroun, told The Associated Press before Mr. Abdul-Jalil’s announcement that security had found three badly burned bodies. Two of them were dead and one was unconscious, Mr. Fadlallah said, adding that one was known to be Younis, though they didn’t know which one.
“We formed a fact-finding committee to go the scene because we found three bodies that were burned so badly we couldn’t tell from the faces who was who,” he said.
American and British officials said they were unable to confirm details of the reports but were looking into them.
Source: AP – The Associated Press