BENGHAZI — Rebel fighters challenging the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi fought a pitched eight-hour battle overnight and Sunday morning against what their leaders called a “fifth column” of Qaddafi loyalists. The fighting raised fresh questions about divisions, distrust and deception in the rebel ranks in the days after the killing of the rebels’ top military leader, a general who defected from Colonel Qaddafi’s army early in the rebellion.
The sound of rifle, revolver and rocket-propelled grenade fire echoed in a neighborhood of the city from midnight to eight in the morning on Sunday, forcing residents to take cover in their homes and diverting traffic. By daybreak, a number of buildings were badly damaged. In one house that was opened to reporters, a trail of an injured fighter’s blood led down the stairs from a blast hole made by a grenade.
Leaders of the rebel security forces told reporters at a news conference on Sunday that they had laid siege to a license-plate factory where about 50 fighters were holed up, and eventually captured them. The rebel leaders said the fighters were loyalists who had posed as one of many loosely confederated rebel brigades, in this case a unit associated with large tribe in the region. The leaders said their own forces suffered 3 dead and 8 injured, while the group in the factory suffered 4 dead and at least 12 injured.
The fighters in the license-plate factory were not believed to have played a role in the killing of the rebel commander, Gen. Abdel Fatah Younes, last Thursday under circumstances that remain mysterious. But the clash came at a time when the rebels were trying to organize their forces more tightly under a unified command.
Through the weekend, rebel leaders continued to issue various conflicting and incomplete accounts of the circumstances surrounding the death of General Younes, a former close confidante and interior minister of Colonel Qaddafi, as the leaders sought to tamp down anger over the death among the general’s tribe, the Obeidi, the largest in the eastern Libya.
At the same time, leaders have taken an increasingly hostile and, some journalists said, threatening tone toward the news media. Reporters were once allowed broad access in and around Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, but they are now largely kept away from the front lines or from top rebel officials. The developments come at a time when many foreign governments, including the United States, are recognizing the rebels’ governing council as the legitimate government of Libya, with the possibility of turning over to the rebels millions of dollars in frozen Qaddafi government assets.
The various official explanations of General Younes’s death that have emerged generally say he died after he was brought back from the front lines by a group of rebel soldiers bearing some kind of summons — a subpoena in some accounts, an arrest warrant in others. Officials have at some times suggested that he was to be questioned about tactical matters or supply shortages, and at others that it was a judicial or criminal summons. Accounts of the chronology — such as whether the general was killed after questioning or before he could be questioned, have also varied.
Because of his former top role in the Qaddafi government — he was one of the officers who took part in Colonel Qaddafi’s 1969 coup and later presided over the detention and torture of untold numbers of dissidents — many people here have suspected General Younes of divided loyalties. At his funeral, his son reportedly called out for a return to Colonel Qaddafi’s rule.
Rebel leaders say they have arrested the leader of the rebel soldiers who brought the general back to Benghazi, but they have not accused him of playing a role in the killing, and it is not clear whether the soldiers he led are suspected of murdering General Younes, whose body was found badly burned and riddled with bullets.
A spokesman for the rebels’ defense ministry has said the summons or arrest warrant for the general had been cancelled and that the group of soldiers acted inappropriately. The spokesman questioned the authority of the rebel minister of finance, who seemed to offer a conflicting account at another news conference. But others, including the rebels’ most senior leader, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, have said the summons or arrest warrant was legitimate, and it was not clear what authority the defense ministry had to cancel it. In any case, officials now universally refer to the general as a “martyr.”
There were reports on Sunday that the rebel government was moving to name General Younes’s deputy as his successor, putting another member of the Obeidi tribe in that important role.
Because of his former top role in the Qaddafi government — he was one of the officers who took part in Colonel Qaddafi’s 1969 coup and later presided over the detention and torture of untold numbers of dissidents — General Younes had no shortage of enemies in the rebel camp, and many people suspected the general of having divided loyalties. At his funeral, his son reportedly called out for a return to Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. His body was found badly burned and riddled with bullets.
The aftermath of his death also suggested tensions within the rebels’ ruling council. A spokesman for the rebels’ defense minister has said the minister canceled the summons or arrest warrant for the general, and the group of soldiers who delivered it acted in error. The spokesman, Ahmed Bani, even questioned the authority of the rebel minister of finance, Ali Tahouni, who seemed to offer a conflicting account at another news conference. “Mr. Tahouni is responsible for the oil fields,” Mr. Bani said. “He is not authorized to speak on behalf of the military. He just said to you what is being said on the street.”
But others, including the rebels’ most senior leader, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, have said the summons or arrest warrant was legitimate, and it was not clear what authority the defense ministry had to cancel it. Mr. Sagazly and other officials said the group in the factory had called itself the Yousef Shakir brigade, after a famous pro-Qaddafi commentator on state television who is from Benghazi. They said the group took orders from Mr. Shakir over the television, and that Mr. Shakir broadcast minute-to-minute details of the fighting during the battle.
Rebel officials said the group had capitalized on the distraction of General Younes’s death to break into Benghazi prisons and free prisoners of war. Several freed prisoners were found among the group in the factory, the officials said, and almost all were recaptured. None of those reports could be confirmed.
Since Friday, rebel officials have been bluntly warning reporters that they could face legal action over what they write, and they have singled out certain journalists whose reports they called inaccurate and divisive, though they did not offer specifics.
Asked why the rebel government was not more open about its investigation of the general’s death, Mr. Bani replied by questioning the motives of journalists.
“We don’t know if anybody here is a fifth column,” he said of the reporters at a 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.”
Source: New York Times