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.
In Benghazi relatives vowed allegiance to the rebels' political leader.
"A message to Mustafa Abdel Jalil: We will walk with you all the way," nephew Mohammed Younes told hundreds of mourners in the main square.
But at the funeral later, worried mourners expressed fears he may have died at the hands of other rebels.
Seraj, a soldier who described himself as a relative, said he had heard that Younes and two other army officials killed with him had gone without a fight with men who had summoned them to Benghazi. "Later we heard that he was killed," he said.
Nephew Hakim said another coffin brought into the square by a crowd of men, some in military fatigues and some with rifles, held the body of one of the other men killed with Younes.
"It seems this was an assassination operation organized by Gaddafi's men," said London-based Libyan activist Shamis Ashour. "There certainly was treason, a sleeping cell among the rebels."
"The alternative, which is equally possible," said another analyst, Shashank Joshi, "is summary execution by rebels, an internal act of decapitation by the rebels themselves."
Joshi, of London's Royal United Services Institute, said this explanation would highlight divisions in rebel ranks already known to exist, and put a question mark over the rebels' reliability as partners for Western states.
"All these things would humiliate governments that have supported the rebels. Particularly Britain, which came late to the fray, partly for reasons like this," he said.
One rebel commander said Islamists may have been to blame.
Libyan state TV named a rebel it said had killed Younes.
Younes, from eastern Libya where the rebels are strongest, was Gaddafi's interior minister but swapped sides to become the military chief in the rebel Transitional National Council, whose political leader Jalil announced his death.
Jalil said the killers were still at large but added:
"The head of the armed cell, to which the accusing finger points and a member of which carried out this individual cowardly crime, has been arrested." He gave no details.
Younes, who was involved in the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power, was not trusted by all rebel leaders due to his previous role in cracking down on dissidents.
His death is likely to be a severe setback to a movement that has won the backing of some 30 nations -- most recently Britain and Portugal -- but is laboring on the battlefield.
Hariri, the rebel defense minister, visited the front line in western Libya on Friday. At a nearby checkpoint he told Reuters Younes's death was still being investigated.
"Of course this will have an impact on the rebels, after all we have lost a key leader," he said. "But they will recover, and there will be other leaders."
Analyst David Hartwell of IHS in London said:
"He was one of the few credible senior opposition military commanders and he has been a key figure in helping stabilize and re-organize rebel fighters."
Fighters on the front line near the town of Misrata said they viewed Younes as a martyr and would avenge his death.
"It will be an extra motive for us in the fight against the tyrant," said Khaled al-Uwayyib.
Rebels took swathes of Libya early on after rising up in February to end Gaddafi's 41 years of domination of the oil-producing North African state but have made few recent advances despite the support of NATO air strikes.
They said they had seized several towns in the Western Mountains on Thursday but are yet to make a major breakthrough.
A rebel commander near Ghezaia told Reuters on Friday that around 100 insurgents had taken control of the town, from which Gaddafi forces had dominated plains below the mountains.
Reuters could not go there to confirm the report as rebels said the area could be mined. But looking through binoculars from a rebel-held ridge near Nalut, reporters could see no sign of Gaddafi's forces in Ghezaia.
Another rebel commander said the settlements of Takut and Um al Far had also been seized.
With prospects fading for a negotiated settlement, the five-month-old civil war will grind on into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August.
Nick Witney, analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris, said the West had hoped for a "nice simple conflict" with right prevailing, but this had ignored Libya's nuanced tribal-based politics.
"It was a brave and right thing to do," he said. "But I feel we've lost the moral high ground a bit and wandered into something that will be prolonged and messy, but we're not in a position to sort out."
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy near Ghezaia; Mussab Al-Khairalla in Misrata; Alexandria Sage in Paris; Samia Nakhoul, Avril Ormsby and Clare Kane in London and Missy Ryan in Tripoli; writing by Richard Meares; editing by Andrew Roche)
Source: Reuters US Online Report Top News