General Abdel Fatah Younis, the rebels' military leader and ex defector killed
General Abdel Fatah Younis, the chief of staff of the rebel forces in the National Transitional Council based in Benghazi, and former senior officer in the Libyan leader, Muammar Al Qathafi's regime, has been killed together with two of his friends, generals Mohammed Khamis and Nasser Mahroum, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council chairman has announced.
"With all sadness, I inform you of the passing of Abdel Fatah Younis, the commander-in-chief of our rebel forces," Abdul Jalil said, adding, without giving much details, that rebel security had arrested the head of the group behind the killing, but had not found the dead men's bodies. He also suggested that the suspect had implicated others in the attack.
The announcement was made at a chaotic late-night news conference at the Tibesti hotel amid a surprised media in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. It was also learnt that Libyan state TV had announced to its viewers days ago that they would be “hearing hear good news about Abdulfatah Younis this week.”
Abdul Jalil suggested that 67-year-old Younis had been killed by "pro-Al Qathafi" forces on the route back to Benghazi from Brega early in the morning.
There had been heated speculations throughout the day that Younis, who was one of the highest ranked officials from the Al Qathafi government to have defected to lead rebel forces, had been killed on the orders of Jali
Runours were still swirling Thursday night, that Younis was killed hours after he was arrested over suspected ties to Colonel Al Qathafi’s regime, and that he was shot dead last night by assailants after answering a summons to leave the front-line and face questioning in Benghazi. He was killed before he could be questioned.
The National Transitional Council did not confirm whether General Younis was killed by rebels or pro-Al Qathafi forces, but reports published in international press, claimed he may have been acting as a double agent.
Such rumours were also circulating in Benghazi throughout Thursday that Younis, who was known as the number two in Al Qathafi's regime before defecting, in the early days of Libya's revolt, had been arrested and killed before he could face interrogation.
However, the TNC would not at first confirm this. But then rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil confirmed that Younis had been summoned from the front before a rebel judicial committee investigating military issues but he and two bodyguards were shot by an armed group while he was on his way to Benghazi before he could even appear before the committee. He said that the bodies had not been recovered.
The head of NTC, Abdul-Jalil called Younis "one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution," a name marking the date of early protests against the Al Qathafi regime, and declared a period of three days of mourning to honour his memory.
He also declared that everyone who was behind the assassination would be caught and brought to justice.
Abdul Jalil also issued a stiff warning about "armed groups" in rebel-held cities, saying they needed to join the fight against Al Qathafi or risk being arrested by security forces. He also warned all remaining armed groups in Benghazi that anyone caught firing a single shot in the free areas would be caught and reprimanded.
Very few details were provided about a murky attack that is bound to represent a major blow to the rebels' efforts to topple Muammar Al-Qathafi from power.
It was not clear where the trio were killed and, adding to the confusion, Jalil did not say how he knew they had been killed, adding only that their bodies were yet to be found.
The leader of the rebels said that “Every effort would be made, to find those criminals and the bodies of the martyrs.”
Abdul Jalil did not specify the timing, location, or method of attack, and said that rebel authorities continue to search for the three bodies. Other rebel officials declined to say what parts of Libya would be searched.
After a lengthy closed door meeting with NTC members, Abdul Jalil went on to tell journalists: “I ask you to refrain from paying attention to the rumours that Al Qathafi's forces are trying to spread within our ranks."
Shortly after the announcement, two vehicles loaded with an anti-aircraft gun and at least a dozen armed men shooting in the air burst into the grounds of the Tibesti hotel, where the announcement was made. No one was hurt.
The press conference, which ended abruptly with the NTC president refusing to take questions, failed to explain how the general could have been ambushed in a highly guarded convoy.
General Younis, a long-time of Colonel Al Qathafi, had served both as the head of Libya’s special forces and the interior minister. He has been a controversial figure as head of the rebel forces because - until the uprising - he was Muammar Al Qathafi's Interior Minister, one of his most trusted officials and confidants.
Younis was described as a contentious figure in the rebel movement., and though his defection had been seen as a major boost to the rebels, he was an object of suspicion for many of the revolutionaries who wondered whether he had really switched sides.
According to reports, for months, a continuing public rivalry between Gen. Younis and his rival for the army command, Khalifa Hifter, contributed to a pervasive sense of chaos in the ranks, as both men claimed to command the fighters in the field. He reportedly nearly came to blows with Hifter, during a meeting in late March.
For much of that month both men claimed to be in command of the ragtag rebel forces as they raced west towards Tripoli, only to be thrown back towards Benghazi in chaos and confusion.
His record as a military strategist was also decidedly mixed. In March, when he took over leadership of the rebel fighters, General Younis said he had thousands of fighters under his command - including a large contingent that was making its way towards Tripoli.
By April, Younis had won the political battle inside the National Transitional Council and was confirmed as chief of staff but he failed to use his new position to bring victory on the battlefield.
Since April, under his leadership, and despite significant air support by NATO warplanes, the rebel fighters were for months held to a stalemate around the key oil town of Brega in the eastern part of the country.
General Younis was a popular figure with his men. Some of them clearly did not believe that the rebel council had released Gen. Younis before his death, and the AFP news agency reported that armed youths shouted “You killed him,” as they tried to barge inside the hotel where Mr. Jalil announced the killing.
The assassination could cause embarrassment and concern for the foreign office in the UK as it comes just a day after the foreign secretary, William Hague, said that Britain would recognise the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya and expelling Al Qathafi's diplomats.
London had hoped that after months of work, the NTC was now fit to govern, but now, u unless Jalil can provide a full and public account of the assassination and the circumstances around it, ity appears that opinion may need to be revised.
The killing of Younis, who is reported to have been involved in the 1969 coup that brought Al Qathafi to power and then became his interior minister, came after the rebels attacked Ghazaya, a town near the Tunisian border that had been held by pro-government forces throughout the conflict.
By late afternoon, the rebels said they had taken control of the town, from which Al Qathafi forces had controlled an area of the plains below the mountains.