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Rebel Leader's Death Puts Eastern Libya On Edge

Libyans shout slogans at a rally in rebel-held Benghazi, in eastern Libya on July 31. The rally was held to  pay respect to Abdel-Fattah Younis, the Libyan rebels' slain military chief. Now, his family, tribesmen and supporters are demanding answers from the rebel authorities about his death.
Libyans shout slogans at a rally in rebel-held Benghazi, in eastern Libya on July 31. The rally was held to pay respect to Abdel-Fattah Younis, the Libyan rebels' slain military chief. Now, his family, tribesmen and supporters are demanding answers from the rebel authorities about his death.

In eastern Libya, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is filled with tension following the murder last week of the rebels' top military commander.

Abdel-Fattah Younis was killed in mysterious circumstances. Now, members of his family and his tribe — one of the most powerful in Libya — are accusing the rebel authorities of dragging its feet in the investigation.

The National Transitional Council, which is the de facto government in rebel-held areas, has plastered Benghazi with posters of the late rebel leader with the message that his tribe, the Ubaideyat, supports the government.

But a recent tribal meeting was a warning to the authorities that there are questions about Younis' death that still need answers.

Sheik Ali Senussi Abdulsaid is one of the heads of the Ubaideyat, which numbers almost half a million people, or about one-tenth of Libya's population. He says that the NTC is moving too slowly. He says everyone from the chairman of the council on down should be questioned. Tribal members in Benghazi warn of "serious" consequences — even violence — if there isn't transparency in the investigation.

Killing 'Looks Like A Betrayal'

Younis had been interior minister under Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but he quit his post and joined the rebels after the uprising began. He became the leading rebel commander, but suspicions remained about his loyalties. His death last week sent the city of Benghazi into a tailspin of suspicion and intrigue. He was taken from the front lines last week, apparently escorted by more than 100 rebel fighters. At some point he was killed and his body was dumped, burned in a field near his home.

So far, the rebel government has given no credible accounting of how he was assassinated.

At the tribal gathering, Younis' sons, who didn't want their names used, said that if the rebel leadership couldn't bring their father's killers to justice then they hoped the tribe would.

"The way he was killed looks like a betrayal," said one son, adding that no one is above suspicion.

Another son said he believes the rebel council was involved.

It's not only his tribe that is threatening violence.

Younis headed the rebels' special forces, among his other duties. And some of the men under his command in Benghazi — who also don't want their names used — say they don't take their orders from the National Transitional Council. They will abide by what the tribe decides, raising the specter of internecine warfare.

In Rebel Areas, Chaos And Suspicion

Younis' death has put a spotlight on the confusing array of security organs in eastern Libya.

After the collapse of Gadhafi's police force and military there, groups called kabtibas, or brigades, have stepped into the breach.

At a base in Benghazi, dozens of men of one such brigade — some in uniform, some not — clean and load their weapons.

Some of these brigades go to the front lines to fight against the Gadhafi forces. Others, such as these men in Benghazi, are more focused on "internal security."

The law of the land now lies in the hands of these brigades, which essentially consist of men with guns, with little training or oversight.

Fawzi Gadhafi, who is from the same tribe as the Libyan leader, is the base's commander. A former communications engineer, he now oversees hundreds of men and sends them out on missions to arrest suspected Gadhafi spies.

The local population tips them off, and some people even inform on their relatives, he says.

A group of rebels is sent out to investigate and arrest the suspect if they think the allegation is true.

"We've captured over 100 so far," Gadhafi says.

But with no real working court system, no proper system of investigation and a creeping paranoia about Gadhafi infiltrators, justice is often swift and brutal.

This past weekend, a medium-sized brigade was apparently discovered to be a secret nest of Gadhafi supporters. Rebel fighters attacked the al-Nidaa brigade's headquarters in an hours-long battle, killing and capturing many of them.

As with many things in Libya, the circumstances around the battle are murky. Access to the site was restricted, with the rebel government again giving few details on how such a large group of supposed Gadhafi supporters was hiding in plain sight among their ranks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.