Libyan rebels' chief of staff Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis is seen in April,… (Altaf Qadri / Associated…)
Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — The chief of staff for rebel forces fighting to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi was attacked and killed Thursday, according to the rebels' leadership council.
In a terse announcement that left many questions unanswered, the president of the council said Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis and two other commanders were killed as they returned from the eastern front near Port Brega to Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.
Reading haltingly from a brief communique, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, president of the Transitional National Council, said pro-Kadafi gunmen had infiltrated rebel-held areas, but he did not specifically blame them for the killings. Abdul Jalil refused to take questions from reporters.
Abdul Jalil did not address reports that Younis had been summoned to Benghazi for questioning by the rebel leadership on suspicion of continuing loyalties to Kadafi, saying only that he was called for military discussions. One rebel loyalist in Benghazi with close ties to the council said Younis was to have been "interrogated" Thursday by the council about alleged contacts with government forces.
The Associated Press quoted a rebel military spokesman as saying rebel security officers had arrested Younis and two aides early Thursday at their operations room on the eastern front. The website of the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera also reported that Younis had been arrested by the rebel council Thursday morning.
If Younis was indeed arrested, it raises the possibility that he was assassinated by rebel fighters.
Abdul Jalil said Younis had been summoned by a rebel judicial committee to "discuss military matters" and was killed on his way to Benghazi. His body had not been recovered, he said.
He said one assassin had been captured, but the others had escaped. A rebel colonel and a major also were killed in the ambush, he said.
Younis was mistrusted by many rebel fighters because of his 40-year close association with Kadafi. He took part in the 1969 coup that brought Kadafi to power and served as Kadafi's interior minister and head of special forces.
Younis defected to the rebels in February, only to get caught in a fierce rivalry with another general for command of rebel forces.
His death was common knowledge on the streets by midday Thursday. Yet it took the rebel council until after 10 p.m. to issue a short statement announcing the attack.
One council official said the day was spent trying to mollify and control members of Younis' Obeidi tribe, one of the largest and most influential in eastern Libya. Two tribal leaders appeared beside Abdul Jalil at his brief appearance before reporters at a Benghazi hotel, but they did not speak.
Outside the hotel, gunshots rang out after the announcement. Security guards said shots were fired by members of Younis' tribe mourning his death. Several hotel windows were shot out, but no injuries were reported.
Abdul Jalil, who shifted Younis from head of rebel forces to chief of staff after a disruptive feud between Younis and another general, did not provide any details of the attack.
Younis normally traveled with a large security detail, raising questions about how the killers were able to get so close to him and two top commanders, unless they were rebels.
Abdul Jalil called for calm and asked for the public's assistance in tracking down the assassins, who he said were hiding in Benghazi.
Younis' death followed an announcement from the rebels that they had launched an offensive Thursday to secure their hold on a key supply route from the Tunisian border to the Nafusa Mountains of western Libya. Tunisian television reported that the border crossing had been closed.
The assault was aimed at government forces that have launched attacks on rebel positions in the highlands and threatened the rebels' hold on the border post, according to an email from a rebel spokesman.
The rebels seized control of most of the western mountains in fighting this spring, but they have been unable in recent weeks to cut a key supply line from the southern desert to Kadafi's stronghold in Libya.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.