Libyan rebel leader is killed, and tribal fissures emerge
Assassination sparks immediate tension in Benghazi
BENGHAZI, Libya - The top rebel military commander in Libya was killed yesterday, and members of his tribe greeted the announcement with gunfire and angry threats. The violent outburst stirred fears that a tribal feud could divide the forces struggling to topple the Libyan dictator, Moammar Khadafy.
The leader of the rebels’ provisional government, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, announced yesterday evening that assassins killed the commander, General Abdul Fattah Younes, and two other officers. But he provided few details.
Younes, a former officer and Cabinet member in the Khadafy government, had long been a contentious figure among the rebels, some of whom doubted his loyalty. He had been summoned to Benghazi for questioning by a panel of judges, and members of his tribe - the Obeidi, one of the largest tribes in the east - evidently blamed the rebel leadership for having some role in the general’s death.
The specter of a violent tribal conflict within the rebel ranks touches on a central fear of the Western nations backing the Libyan insurrection: that the rebels’ democratic goals could give way to a tribal civil war over Libya’s oil resources. Khadafy has often warned of such a possibility as he has fought to keep power, but the rebel leaders have argued that their cause transcends Libya’s age-old tribal divisions.
Before Younes defected to the rebel side soon after the uprising began in February, he had been a longtime friend of Khadafy and his interior minister. Those ties fostered persistent rumors that his loyalties were divided. State TV sometimes tried to exploit those rumors by reporting that he had returned to his old job.
Tensions started rising here in the rebels’ de facto capital yesterday evening with reports that a group of four judges working for the rebel council had summoned Younes for questioning. The war effort he led has stalled for months along immobile battle lines on the eastern front.
When the rebel leadership announced a news conference later at a Benghazi hotel, members of his tribe gathered outside and began chanting. Some inside, at the news conference, warned of possible violence if Younes were removed from his position.
Instead, two hours after the news conference was scheduled to begin, Abdul Jalil made a short speech, saying Younes had been killed and offering few clues to the circumstances of the death.
Abdul Jalil confirmed Younes had been summoned for questioning by the judges, although he declined to say why. He said only that Younes had been “released on his own recognizance,’’ rather than being either accused or exonerated of anything.
For months, a rivalry between Younes and another rebel military leader, Khalifa Hifter, contributed to the pervasive sense of chaos in the ranks.
Abdul Jalil said that an armed gang had killed Younes and the other two officers, and that at least one of the gang members had been captured. He declined to name the killer or to say who the gang was working for.
Abdul Jalil said rebel security forces were still searching for the bodies of the three dead officers, raising questions about how he had confirmed their deaths.
Abdul Jalil also conveyed an intense anxiety not to alienate Younes’s tribe. Instead of appearing with other members of the rebel council as expected, he sat at a table with men he said were elders of the Obeidi tribe. He repeatedly said he wanted to “pay respects’’ to the tribe for its sacrifice and understanding, calling it “strong and deep.’’
Moments later, a pickup truck full of angry armed Obeidi tribesmen arrived at the front of the hotel. Some fired Kalashnikovs at hotel windows, shattering them, and others shot into the air. One man raced with his rifle through the front door of the hotel, and two witnesses said they heard gunshots inside. Security guards and hotel guests crouched behind concrete in front of the hotel for cover.
The eruption of tribal animosities within Benghazi is itself a blow to the rebels’ self-image as a movement bringing the whole country together behind the banner of freedom and democracy.