By Rania El Gamal
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s rebel military commander was shot dead in an incident shrouded in mystery, dealing a blow to the Western-backed forces struggling to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Rebels said Abdel Fattah Younes, long a member of the veteran leader’s inner circle before defecting in February, was shot by assailants on Thursday after he had been summoned from the battlefield for unspecified talks with other rebel leaders.
The killing of such a senior figure is an embarrassment and a setback for the rebels regardless of who was responsible — Gaddafi agents apparently able to strike deep in rebel inner circles, or his own side. There are known to be stark divisions between Gaddafi defectors and those who never worked with him.
The rebels did not say who killed Younes or where. His death coincided with a new rebel offensive in the west and further international recognition for rebels, which they hope will help unfreeze billions of dollars in Libyan state funds.
On Friday, weeping relatives and supporters brought his coffin into the main square of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to mourn him.
“We got the body yesterday here (in Benghazi), he had been shot with bullets and burned,” Younes’s nephew, Abdul Hakim, said, crying as he followed the coffin through the square.
“He had called us at 10 o’clock (on Thursday morning) to say he was on his way here.”
RUMORS OF SECRET TALKS
Officials would not give details of why Younes had been recalled to Benghazi from the front line near the oil port of Brega for questioning. Rumors had circulated in Benghazi that he had held secret talks with the Gaddafi government.
“If the Rumors that General Younes was feeding information to Gaddafi were there then it would make sense that some rogue elements might attempt to assassinate him,” said Alan Fraser, an analyst with London-based risk consultancy AKE.
Rebel defense minister Omar Hariri told Reuters his death was still being investigated and the loss would be great.