Conflict In Libya
1:25 pm
Wed August 3, 2011

Rebel Leader's Death Puts Eastern Libya On Edge

Originally published on Thu August 11, 2011 11:07 am

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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Libya, the killing of a rebel military leader has highlighted divisions among the anti-Gadhafi forces. Abdel Fatah Younis was murdered last week in mysterious circumstances. And questions about that killing are rising to the highest levels of the rebel government. Now, members of Younis's family and his powerful tribe are accusing the rebel authorities of dragging their feet in the investigation.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro sent this story from the rebel capital of Benghazi.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Under a tent strewn with cushions, the tribes have gathered. The National Transitional Council, which is the de facto government in the rebel held areas, has been trying to avoid this day They've been putting up posters around Benghazi of the late Abdel Fatah Younis with the message that his tribe, the Ubaideyat, supports the government here. But this meeting is a warning to the powers that be that there are still questions that need answers in the death of their tribesman.

Abdulsaid is one of the heads of the tribe, which numbers almost half a million people.

ALI SENUSSI ABDULSAID: (Arabic language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that the NTC is dragging its heels. He says everyone from the chairman of the NTC on down should be questioned. The tribal members here warn of serious consequences, even violence, if there isn't transparency and justice. Abdel Fatah Younis's surprising and brutal murder has sent the city of Benghazi into a tailspin of suspicion and intrigue. He was taken from the frontlines last week, apparently by court order and with the escort of over a hundred rebel fighters. At some point he was killed and his body was dumped, burned in a field nearby his home. So far, the rebel government has given no credible accounting of the assassination. At the tribal gathering, Younis's sons said that if the rebel leadership couldn't bring their father's killers to justice, then they hoped the tribe would.

SON OF ABDEL FATAH YOUNIS: (foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way he was killed looks like a betrayal, says one son. No one is above suspicion. Another son, who doesn't want his full name broadcast, says he believes the rebel council could have been involved.

YOUNIS: Maybe, yes, maybe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not only his tribe that is threatening violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The men here were under Younis's command in the special forces branch. But they say they don't take their orders from the NTC anymore. They will abide by what the tribe decides, raising the specter of internecine warfare. And the chaos surrounding Younis's death has put a spotlight on the confusing array of security organs here in eastern Libya.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They are called kabtibas or brigades. After the collapse of Gadhafi's police force and military here, these groups stepped into the breach.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dozens of men - some in uniform, some not - clean and load their weapons at this base in Benghazi. Some of these groups go to the frontlines to fight; others, like here, are focused more on internal security. But they're basically just a bunch of guys with guns. And with little training or oversight, they're now the law in the land.

Commander FAWZI GADHAFI: (foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fawzi Gadhafi - no relation to the Libyan leader - is the commander here. He was a former communications engineer. Now, he oversees hundreds of men and sends them out on missions to arrest suspected Gadhafi spies.

GADHAFI: (foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We get tip-offs from the local population, he says. Some people even tell on their relatives. A group of rebels is sent out to investigate and arrest the suspect if they think the allegation is true.

GADHAFI: (foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But with no real working court system, no proper system of investigation and a creeping paranoia about Gadhafi infiltrators, often justice is swift and brutal. This past weekend, one brigade was apparently discovered to be a secret nest of fifth column 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 here, the circumstances of the battle remain murky and 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. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Benghazi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.