Abdel Fattah Younes has been subject of much scrutiny and scepticism among anti-Gaddafi Libyans.
The Libyan National Transitional Council has formed an “investigative committee” to probe the assassination of the head of their armed forces and two of his aides after a special forces officer and opposition minister said fellow rebels killed them.
Abdel Fattah Younes and his aides were shot dead and their bodies reportedly burned by gunmen on Thursday, creating a power vacuum at the top of the military hierarchy and raising questions about divided allegiances within the opposition.
Ali Tarhouni, the NTC oil minister, said that a rebel militia leader who had been asked to fetch Younes from the front line near the town of Brega had been arrested and had confessed that his subordinates carried out the killing.
“The NTC has appointed an investigative committee and we will publish all the facts of this investigation,” Tarhouni said, according to the AFP news agency.
“The head of the militia is imprisoned now,” Tarhouni said, adding that some of the perpetrators were yet to be incarcerated and that their motive remained unclear. “We don’t know who they work for.”
State television targeted
NATO’s air campaign against Gaddafi’s troops continued on Saturday, with the alliance claiming to have carried out a “precision air strike that disabled three ground-based Libyan state TV satellite transmission dishes” in Tripoli, according to a statement from Col Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesperson.
Khaled Basilia, the director of al-Jamahiriya television’s English language section, said, however, that three people had been killed and 15 others wounded in the attack.
He termed the air strike “an act of international terrorism” and said it was in violation of the UN security council resolutions under which NATO is acting.
NATO says that it was acting under “our mandate to protect civilian lives”.
Over the past 24 hours, NATO says it has hit 13 military targets near Brega, four targets in and around Tripoli (in addition to the satellite dishes) and 16 targets in other towns and cities.
The rebels, meanwhile, continued their advance through Libya’s western mountains, with a rebel commander telling Reuters that his forces had encircled forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi at Tiji, the last camp left in their control.
Nasir al-Hamdi, a former colonel in Gaddafi’s police force and now a rebel commander in the west, said about 500 government troops were trapped in Tiji, and that rebel forces were bombarding them with tank shells.
Blame placed, but not on Gaddafi
The controvery over Younes’ death continues, meanwhile, and blame has been laid against several groups.
A spokesman for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said al-Qaeda was responsible for Younes’ death, while a rebel special forces officer said the perpetrators were members of the February 17th Martyrs’ Brigade, one of the many ad-hoc units that have formed during the uprising.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the opposition leader, called Younes “one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution” at a late-night press conference on Thursday, during which he announced the killing.
Jalil did not say Gaddafi’s forces were directly responsible for Younes’ killing but said Gaddafi was seeking to break the unity of rebel forces. He also issued a stiff warning about unaffiliated “armed groups” in rebel-held cities, saying they needed to join the fight against Gaddafi or risk being arrested by security forces.
Younes, a longtime aide and interior minister to Gaddafi, defected on February 20 and helped the mostly unarmed protesters in Benghazi overthrow the regime’s military garrison there.
By Saturday, several sources were placing blame for the killing, and few were pointing toward Gaddafi.
“By this act, al-Qaeda wanted to mark out its presence and its influence in this region”, Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters. “It is al-Qaeda that has the power in the east.”
But Mohammed Agoury, a member of the rebel special forces, told the AP news agency that he was present when a group of rebels from the February 17th Brigade came to Younes’ operations room before dawn on Wednesday and took him away for interrogation.
Younes had been summoned to appear before a judicial inquiry convened by the NTC to investigate a “military affair,” Jalil said on Thursday. Sources said Younes was suspected of somehow collaborating with Gaddafi’s regime.
Agoury said he tried to accompany his commander, but Younes “trusted them and went alone”.
“Instead, they betrayed us and killed him,” he said.
Abdul Hakim, a nephew of Younes, said that Younes’ body was returned to his family on Thursday, burned and bearing bullet wounds.
Younes laid to rest
On Friday, tens of thousands of people gathered in Benghazi’s central courthouse square – renamed Tahrir Square by the opposition – to observe Friday prayers and mourn Younes’ death.
They carried coffins and chanted “the blood of martyrs will not go in vain” under the nervous gaze of security forces.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley, reporting from Benghazi, said Younes’ body was not actually present at the Friday ceremony, but the slain commander was laid to rest later in the day at al-Hawari cemetary.
Younes was given a military farewell with a 300-soldier salute before being buried. The crackling of machine guns shot in the air competed with the crowds chanting, and members of Younes’ family came to receive condolences.
Younes’ son, Ashraf, broke down at his father’s graveside, the AP news agency reported. Crying and screaming as Younes’ body was lowered into the ground, he reportedly pleaded hysterically for the return of Gaddafi to bring stability.
“We want Muammar to come back! We want the green flag back!” he shouted at the crowd, referring to Gaddafi’s national banner.
Suspicion falls on rebel unit
The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is a group of hundreds of civilians who took up arms to join the rebellion. With their headquarters in Benghazi, the new fighters participate in the front-line battles with Gaddafi’s forces but also act as a semi-official internal security force for the opposition.
Agoury, the special forces commander, said the brigade had an agenda against Younes, because he was previously Gaddafi’s interior minister and was involved in crackdowns against conservative, anti-regime Islamic groups.
One of those is the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which waged a guerrilla campaign against Gaddafi’s regime in the 1990s, including assassination attempts on the leader. The LIFG has been connected to al-Qaeda, and some of its members fought against international troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has long foresworn any allegiance with the jihadi group.
Agoury said there were LIFG members in the February 17th Brigade, and that they “don’t trust anyone who was with Gaddafi’s regime, they wanted revenge.”
A member of the brigade said his group had evidence that Younes was a traitor and that the evidence will come out in a few days.
‘A man who was a target’
“[Younes] is a man who was a target,” Birtley said. “It is a question of who was he targeted by: pro-Gaddafi loyalists or people on the opposition side who didn’t actually like his politics because there were questions about where his loyalties truly lay.”
“This was a man who was the interior minister for Gaddafi. He was a personal friend for 40 years and that friendship shone through,” he said.
“When I [interviewed] him, he said he changed sides because the Gaddafi he knew was not the Gaddafi that was leading the country any longer.”
Mark Toner, a US state department spokesman, said the circumstances of Younes’ death remained unclear, but he pressed the opposition to shore up any cracks in their front against Gaddafi.
“What’s important is that they work both diligently and transparently to ensure the unity of the Libyan opposition,” Toner said.