Rebel fighters challenging the rule of Col. Muammar Al-Gaddafi waged an eight-hour gunfight against themselves in their de facto capital of Benghazi on Sunday, against what the TNC leaders called a “fifth column” of Gaddafi loyalists who had posed as a rebel brigade the claims that the group was pro-Gadhafi do not appear to be based on anything except their refusal to submit to NTC rule . 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 Gaddafi 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 billions of dollars in frozen Libyan 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.
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 various official explanations of General Younes’s death that have emerged generally say he died after he was brought back from the front lines by a group of rebel soldiers bearing some kind of summons — a subpoena in some accounts, an arrest warrant in others. Officials have at some times suggested that he was to be questioned about tactical matters or supply shortages, and at others that it was a criminal summons.
Because of his former top role in the Qaddafi government — he was one of the officers who took part in Colonel Gaddafi’s 1969 coup and later presided over the detention and torture of untold numbers of dissidents — General Younes had no shortage of enemies in the rebel camp, and many people suspected the general of having divided loyalties. At his funeral, his son reportedly called out for a return to Colonel Gaddafi’s rule. His body was found badly burned and riddled with bullets.
The aftermath of his death also suggested tensions within the rebels’ ruling council. A spokesman for the rebels’ defense minister has said the minister canceled the summons or arrest warrant for the general, and the group of soldiers who delivered it acted in error. The spokesman, Ahmed Bani, even questioned the authority of the rebel minister of finance, Ali Tahouni, who seemed to offer a conflicting account at another news conference. “Mr. Tahouni is responsible for the oil fields,” Mr. Bani said. “He is not authorized to speak on behalf of the military. He just said to you what is being said on the street.”
But others, including the rebels’ most senior leader, Mustapha Abdul Jalil, have said the summons or arrest warrant was legitimate, and it was not clear what authority the defense ministry had to cancel it. Mr. Sagazly and other officials said the group in the factory had called itself the Yousef Shakir brigade, after a famous pro-Qaddafi commentator on state television who is from Benghazi. They said the group took orders from Mr. Shakir over the television, and that Mr. Shakir broadcast minute-to-minute details of the fighting during the battle.
Rebel officials said the group had capitalized on the distraction of General Younes’s death to break into Benghazi prisons and free prisoners of war. Several freed prisoners were found among the group in the factory, the officials said, and almost all were recaptured. None of those reports could be confirmed.
Since Friday, rebel officials have been bluntly warning reporters that they could face legal action over what they write, and they have singled out certain journalists whose reports they called inaccurate and divisive, though they did not offer specifics.
Asked why the rebel government was not more open about its investigation of the general’s death, Mr. Bani replied by questioning the motives of journalists.
“We don’t know if anybody here is a fifth column,” he said of the reporters at a news conference. “It is very difficult to determine who is with you and who is against you in a time of conflict, because you don’t necessarily have to hold a weapon. With a word or a rumor they can cause a lot of deaths.”