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Libyan Rebel Leader's Death Spurs Opposition Infighting


We now turn to Libya, where yesterday there were rebels fighting rebels in their stronghold of Benghazi. The fighting comes after the mysterious death late last week of senior rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younis. It's not clear yet who is responsible for his assassination. We now join NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro from Benghazi, where she's been following the twists and turns in this story. Welcome.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with the death of the commander, Younis. Why is it causing so much consternation?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The international community, Renee, has invested a lot of capital in recognizing the rebel government here. And this whole episode, frankly, has shown that there are a lot of problems in the east and within the National Transitional Council.

Abdul Fattah Younis, one of the most senior military commanders here, was murdered, and we've been hearing one story after another with ministers contradicting each other and absolutely no clarity on the matter at all. The worry for countries like the U.S., like Britain, that have recognized the rebel government as the legitimate leadership of Libya, is that the Libyan national councils here simply aren't up to the task of ruling Libya. The government in Tripoli, of course, has been taking advantage of this. Here's the regime spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, speaking on Friday, referring to that British recognition.

Mr. MUSA IBRAHIM (Libyan Government Spokesman): It's a nice slap to the face to the British that the council that they recognize could not protect its own commander of the army. This is the answer Mr. Cameron was asking for. He put his trust in the council and the following day the commander-in-chief of the army was killed by members of the same council.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The implication, of course, being there that the rebels killed Younis, but of course we really don't know exactly who was behind his assassination yet.

MONTAGNE: And that, of course, all of it in some sense good news for Moammar Gadhafi's regime. But what has the rebel government been saying?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we've been given any number of version of events. There are so many inconsistencies, Renee. Initially it seemed pretty clear that the rebels had a hand in the killing. Younis was taken from the frontlines under some sort of court order; he was going to be questioned, apparently. He was then escorted, at least some portion of the way, to this questioning by rebel fighters. But now the rebel authority is trying to pin the murder and alleged other acts of sabotage on some shadowy secret group of fifth columnists who have infiltrated eastern Libya and have hidden here in plain sight in Benghazi.

MONTAGNE: There seems to be just so many unanswered questions, though, even days later.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's exactly right. There was fighting here yesterday, and even something like this was filled with all sorts of weird allegations. The clashes that broke out were supposedly about good rebels sanctioned by the leadership here fighting this cell of supposed Gadhafi loyalists who apparently had a hand in releasing prisoners from jail in the confusion after Younis's killing.

The rebel government said that at the site of the supposed nest of Gadhafi supporters, they found pro-Gadhafi literature and posters, which they then conveniently burned and no journalist was allowed to see. There was also some sort of statement that this supposed cell was getting its instructions via Libyan state television.

The story here simply gets more and more surreal and frankly incredible. The fact of the matter is that as this confusion goes on, more and more questions are being asked of the Libyan rebel council and their leadership and their culpability in the matter of Younis's death.

MONTAGNE: Well, the rebel government's attitude also, I gather, toward the media seems to have changed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, because now the rebel government is facing criticism and is coming under very severe questioning. At least one journalist has been beaten up; several more have been threatened over their reporting on this matter. And in one memorable press conference we were accused of possibly being fifth columnists ourselves, all going to show that the rebel leadership here is feeling under increasing pressure and a lot of scrutiny is being paid to how they're reacting to this pressure.

MONTAGNE: Lourdes, thank you very much. We've been talking with Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She's in Benghazi, Libya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.