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Libyan Rebel Leader's Death Fuels Fears Of Fracturing

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In Libya, one of the most senior rebel commanders has been killed. Abdel-Fattah Younis did not die in battle against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi; apparently he was killed by someone on his own side.

The circumstances surrounding Younis’ death are still unclear. But there are fears that his murder will deepen internal divisions in the rebel military leadership.

Steve Inskeep speaks with Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya.

Inskeep: What happened?

Garcia-Navarro: We don’t know very much. This is a bizarre, murky story, which we’re only beginning to get the barest clarity on. It is, at the moment, a whodunit, if you will. That’s the big question.

What we know is that Abdel-Fattah Younis was taken from the front lines near Brega to be questioned. There had been suspicion for some time as to his loyalties, and some had suspected him of being a Gadhafi supporter, a double agent, if you will. We understand that’s why he was going to be questioned.

Now, that’s when things get unclear. Did he ever make it to that questioning? When exactly was he killed? By whom and where? We don’t know. The statement given [Thursday] by the head of the Transitional National Council was very brief and did not illuminate the matter. Suspicions are now falling everywhere. It could have been members of the rebel army who were loyal to a rival leader, a kind of internal military coup, if you will. It could have been a rogue group of rebel fighters; it could have been Gadhafi agents. I’ve heard all these theories posited.

The problem is, within this uncertainty, there’s a lot of room for suspicion to grow. Younis was a member of one of the biggest tribes here, and they are very angry, and they may seek retribution, and there are also his loyalists.

Inskeep: When you say “one of the biggest tribes,” how highly organized, in the rebel areas, is society by tribe?

Garcia-Navarro: Tribal loyalties are extremely important. We’ve seen that play out throughout this conflict in Libya. Gadhafi’s support has been organized by tribes that are loyal to him. Here in the east, as well, it is an incredibly tribal society. And, indeed, we saw members of Abdel-Fattah Younis’ tribe flanking the head of the Transitional National Council as he made this announcement about his death, in a sort of show of unity. And then members of his tribe then tried to storm the hotel where this statement was actually [being made], firing shots in the air, and vowing revenge. So clearly, the tribal element is going to be a big one in this, but it depends on who did this, what is the reason Abdel-Fattah Younis was murdered.

So, not only do we have confusion about who killed this man, you’re saying that there are members of his tribe who are standing with the government and members of his tribe who seem angry at the government at the same time.

Absolutely. It’s a very confusing situation at the moment, and it’s really not clear how this will all play out. What actions will his loyalists take? What actions will his tribe take? And beyond that, the fallout could also be just from the military standpoint. Abdel-Fattah Younis was a very senior leader. He was very important in the ongoing battles against Gadhafi. There were three front lines: one in the western mountains, one in Misrata and one here in the east. He was heavily involved in orchestrating those battles. Right now, the atmosphere within the rebel ranks is one of suspicion and confusion.

Inskeep: How had the rebels been doing on the battlefield in the last few days and weeks?

Garcia-Navarro: It’s a mixed picture. Here, in the east, in the fight for the oil port town of Brega, the battle has not been going well. Gadhafi’s forces have been entrenched. There have been minefields placed all around that town, which have stalled the rebel advance. And indeed, I heard one theory that Abdel-Fattah Younis was being blamed for the fact that the rebels had not taken Brega.

But the rebels have made a lot of advances in the western side of the country. In the western mountains, there was a battle [Thursday] for a town near the border with Tunisia, and the rebels took it very easily.

Inskeep: Is this killing raising questions about unity within the entire rebel movement, whether there are many people who might be suspecting one another or turning on each other?

Garcia-Navarro: Absolutely. First of all, Abdel-Fattah Younis was already locked in a kind of battle within the rebel forces with another general for control of the rebel military. So there’s already those divisions that exist. Beyond that, this apparent assassination, murder, will only exacerbate those tensions. Nobody knows right now who to trust. Everyone I’ve spoken to says we don’t know who’s behind this, we don’t know why he was killed. And if he was murdered ... why would someone do this? Why would someone try and exploit these divisions? Fingers are being pointed in every direction.

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