Benghazi clash exposes cracks in rebel ranks

The New York Times reports:

Rebel fighters challenging the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi waged an eight-hour gunfight here in their de facto capital on Sunday, against what their leaders called a “fifth column” of Qaddafi loyalists who had posed as a rebel brigade. It was the latest sign of discord and trickery in the rebel ranks to emerge in the four days since the killing of the rebels’ top military leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, a former Qaddafi confidant who had defected to their side.

The mysterious circumstances of his death have raised new questions about his own loyalties, and about the unity and discipline of the rebel troops. The rebel leaders’ response to the killing has produced a cascade of conflicting stories, hints of conflicts within the rebel government and signs that its leaders are deeply fearful of tribal animosities within their ranks, despite their efforts to portray Libya’s tribal rivalries as antiquated and obsolete.

At the same time, leaders have taken an increasingly hostile and, some journalists said, threatening tone toward the news media.

The developments come at a time when many foreign governments, including the United States, are recognizing the rebels’ governing council as the legitimate government of Libya, with the possibility of turning over to the rebels millions of dollars in frozen Qaddafi government assets.

The gunfight in the city began on Sunday just after midnight and lasted until about 8 a.m. Neighbors hid in their homes as assault rifles, revolvers and rocket-propelled grenades rang out, badly damaging homes and cars around the license plate factory where the so-called fifth column group, numbering several dozen people, was holed up.

In one house that was opened to reporters, the trail of a wounded fighter’s blood led down the stairs from a blast hole made by a grenade. But reporters were not allowed in the factory.

At a news conference on Sunday, rebel leaders said that three of their own fighters had died and eight were wounded in besieging and ultimately capturing the fighters in the factory. Of the fighters in the factory, they said, four died and at least 12 were wounded.

Rebel leaders said they had undertaken the assault in part because of a new drive to bring quasi-independent armed brigades around the city under the direct authority of the rebel military and security forces. It has been five months since the Libyan conflict broke out, and nearly as long since the rebels first talked of establishing a unified command. But the killing of General Younes focused new attention on the disorder among their brigades.

Asked why the rebel security forces had not moved sooner against the so-called fifth column, Mustapha el-Sagazly, the deputy interior minister, said that the group had associated itself with a prominent local tribe that officials were afraid to alienate. “Since the issue of the tribes is sensitive, we did not want to stop them, from the early days,” he said.

To reduce the chances of a tribal backlash, the rebels recruited soldiers and mediators from the same tribe for the assault, Mr. Sagazly said. He declined to name the tribe for fear of insulting it, noting that “most of the sons of the tribe” sided against the group in the factory. He also said that the group in the factory turned out to include some fighters from other tribes and even from other North African countries.

Through the weekend, rebel leaders continued to issue various conflicting and incomplete accounts of the circumstances surrounding the death of General Younes, perhaps trying to tamp down anger over the death among the general’s tribe, the Obeidi, the largest in the eastern Libya.

There were reports on Sunday that the rebel government was moving to name another member of General Younes’s tribe, Suleiman al-Obeidi, as his successor. And whatever suspicious there may have been about General Younes, rebel officials now universally refer to him as a “martyr.”

The Guardian reports:

Outwardly, foreign backers of the rebels insist the NTC is sound, with French defence minister Gerard Longuet saying Paris was not pushing for an immediate resolution: “Impatience is never a good adviser.” He insisted an end to the conflict rested with the people of the Libyan capital: “Things have to move in Tripoli. To put it clearly, the population has to rise up.”

Nerves remain frayed in Benghazi and questions remain over the role, if any, of NTC officials in the death of Younis, following an admission that he had been arrested for questioning on treason allegations just hours before his death.

In London, the defence secretary, Liam Fox, would not be drawn on the assassination. “It’s not yet clear who carried out the killing, and there are claims and counter-claims,” he said. “It will be at least several days until we know exactly what the situation was. There has always been a mixture of people who make up the opposition forces – hardly surprising given the country’s history – and it would be for the Libyans themselves to sort out exactly how any power structure develops post-Gaddafi.”

Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the killing raised questions about the stability of the NTC and demonstrated the need for a “wholesale” review of policy. He told Sky News: “The assassination has thrown into fairly sharp focus the whole question of the Transitional National Council. What kind of government [it would be], for example, [if] it ever got to Tripoli.

“I also think that claims of success have always got to be taken with a certain amount of scepticism because it’s not about just taking ground temporarily, its taking it permanently. I’ve been saying I think we should take this period for a wholesale examination of policy.

“I supported the military action – I continue to support the British government’s involvement – but I think we have to have a pretty clearer view about what the NTC would be like were they ever to get to Tripoli.”

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