Death of Libyan rebel leader stirs fears of tribal conflict
Benghazi, Libya, July 29: The top rebel military commander was killed Thursday, and members of his tribe greeted the announcement with gunfire and angry threats. The violent outburst stirred fears that a tribal feud could divide the forces struggling to topple the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The leader of the rebels’ provisional government, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, announced Thursday evening without providing details that unnamed assassins had killed the commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, and two other officers.
General Younes, a former officer and interior minister in the Qaddafi government, had long been a contentious figure among the rebels, some of whom doubted his loyalty. He had been summoned to Benghazi for questioning by a panel of judges, and members of his tribe — the Obeidi, one of the largest in the east — evidently blamed the rebel leadership for having some role in the general’s death.
The specter of a violent tribal conflict within the rebel ranks touches on a central fear of the Western nations backing the Libyan insurrection: that the rebels’ democratic goals could give way to a tribal civil war over Libya’s oil resources. Colonel Qaddafi has often warned of such a possibility as he has fought to keep power, while the rebel leaders have argued that their cause transcends Libya’s age-old tribal divisions.
Before General Younes defected to the rebel side soon after the uprising began in February, he had been a longtime friend of Colonel Qaddafi. Libyan state television sometimes tried to exploit speculation about his divided loyalties by reporting that he had returned to his old job.
During an interview in April, Colonel Qaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, suggested that General Younes was still loyal to her father. She said that at least one former member of the Qaddafi government on the rebels’ ruling council was still talking with the Qaddafis, and she pointedly declined to rule out General Younes.
For months, a public rivalry between General Younes and another rebel military leader, Khalifa Hifter, contributed to the pervasive sense of chaos in the ranks, as both men claimed to command the fighters in the field.
Rumors about General Younes and intertribal tensions started picking up here in the rebels’ de facto capital early Thursday evening with reports that a group of four judges working for the rebel council had summoned General Younes for questioning. The war effort he led has stalled out for months along immobile battle lines on the eastern front.
When the rebel leadership announced a news conference later at a Benghazi hotel, a few dozen members of his tribe gathered outside and began chanting. Some inside warned of possible violence if General Younes were removed from his position.
Instead, two hours after the press conference had been scheduled to begin, Mr. Abdul Jalil announced the death in a carefully worded speech that left many scratching their heads.
Abdul Jalil confirmed that General Younes had been summoned for questioning by the judges, though he declined to say why. He said only that General Younes had been “released on his own recognizance,” rather than either accused or exonerated of anything.
Abdul Jalil said that an armed gang had killed General Younes and the other two officers, and that at least one of the gang members had been captured. He declined to name the killer, or to say whether the gang had been working for Colonel Qaddafi, rebels who did not trust General Younes or some other tribal group or faction.
Abdul Jalil then added that the rebel security forces were still searching for the bodies of the three dead officers, raising questions about how he had confirmed their deaths.
But the rebel leader also conveyed an unmistakable anxiety about the feelings of the Obeidi, General Younes’s tribe. Instead of appearing with other members of the rebel council, as expected, he sat at a table with men he said were elders of the Obeidi. He repeatedly said he wanted to “pay respects” to the tribe for its sacrifice and understanding, calling it “strong and deep.” He left the news conference without taking questions.
Moments later, a pickup truck full of angry armed Obeidi tribesmen arrived at the front of the hotel. Some fired their Kalashnikovs at hotel windows, shattering them, and others shot into the air. One man raced with his rifle through the front door of the hotel, and two witnesses said they heard gunshots inside. Security guards and hotel guests crouched behind concrete in front of the hotel for cover.
Other tribesmen chased down and tackled a journalist trying to leave the hotel. Shouting matches broke out between the men and the rebels guarding the hotel, and then between the rebel fighters themselves. Two more trucks raced by the hotel firing in the air, one pointing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, before rebel authorities anxiously sealed the hotel and the block.
“We have been expecting this,” a security guard said as he hustled a group of journalists into the hotel for safety. “They are the largest tribe. They control most of the east.”
The eruption of tribal animosities within Benghazi is itself a blow to the rebels’ self-image as a movement bringing the whole country together behind the banner of freedom and democracy. Tripoli and other western cities initially seemed to rise up with the Benghazi movement before Colonel Qaddafi reasserted control.
The Qaddafi side, on the other hand, has sought from the beginning to portray the uprising as essentially a tribal war pitting east against west, playing on rivalries that go back to the years before Colonel Qaddafi, when Libya was ruled by a monarch in the east.
Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters acknowledge that he still holds power in the face of the NATO bombing, mainly because of the loyalty of a handful of big western tribes.
Those are also the tribes that have benefited most from sending members into the Qaddafi government and its elite militias, and they may also feel that they have the most to fear if the rebellion led by the eastern tribes succeeds. Courtesy: New York Times
Lastupdate on : Fri, 29 Jul 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 29 Jul 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 30 Jul 2011 00:00:00 IST
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Benghazi, Libya, July 29: The top rebel military commander was killed Thursday, and members of his tribe greeted the announcement with gunfire and angry threats. The violent outburst stirred fears More