Rival rebel factions clash in Libya, 4 dead

July 31, 2011 - 3:29 AM
Mideast Libya

Libyan men carry the coffin, gesture and chant slogans during funeral of Libyan rebels' slain military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis in the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya, Friday, July 29, 2011. Thousands of mourners marched in the funeral procession Friday for the Libyan rebels' slain military chief, a day after he was gunned down under still mysterious circumstances. Abdel-Fattah Younis was killed as he traveled from his front lines operations room to the rebels' de facto capital Benghazi. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — The information minister of Libya's rebel movement says its forces have overrun the base of a rival faction after five hours of fighting.

Mahmoud Shamam says the clashes broke out around 3 a.m. Sunday and left four rebels dead and six wounded. The main rebel force was now in control of the al-Nidaa Brigade's base on the western outskirts of Benghazi, the de facto capital of Libya's rebel-held east.

The fighting followed Thursday's killing of chief rebel commander Abdel-Fattah Younis in yet unexplained circumstances. The slaying and Sunday's clashes point to sharp divisions within the rebel movement nearly six months after the start of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi's rule.

Younis was Gadhafi's interior minister before defecting to the rebel side.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — NATO warplanes bombed three Libyan state TV satellite transmitters in Tripoli overnight, targeting a key propaganda tool that the military alliance said Saturday is used by Moammar Gadhafi's government to incite violence and threaten civilians.

Libya's rebel movement, meanwhile, appeared in disarray after the mysterious death of its chief military commander in a killing that some witnesses said was carried out by fellow rebel fighters who suspected him of treason.

The rebels' political leader sought to dispel any notions of infighting on Saturday and accused Gadhafi supporters of killing Abdel-Fattah Younis. He told reporters that the commander, who was Gadhafi's interior minister before defecting, had not been suspected of treason but had been arrested after complaints he was mismanaging rebel forces.

The NATO strikes in Tripoli echoed across the capital before dawn. There was no comment from Libyan officials on what had been hit, but state TV was still on the air in Tripoli as of Saturday morning.

NATO said the airstrikes aimed to degrade Gadhafi's "use of satellite television as a means to intimidate the Libyan people and incite acts of violence against them."

"Striking specifically these critical satellite dishes will reduce the regime's ability to oppress civilians while (preserving) television broadcast infrastructure that will be needed after the conflict," the alliance said in a statement posted on its website.

It called Gadhafi's TV broadcasts inflammatory and said they were intended to mobilize his supporters.

During the previous 24 hours, alliance aircraft also targeted military vehicles, radars, ammunition dumps, anti-aircraft guns and command centers near the front lines in the east and west, NATO said.

The head of the rebel National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, gave a more detailed account Saturday of the events leading up to the rebel military commander's slaying.

Abdel-Fattah Younis' body was found dumped outside the rebels' de facto capital of Benghazi on Thursday along with the bodies of two colonels who were his top aides. They had been shot and their bodies burned.

His killing while in rebel custody immediately raised suspicions that he was assassinated by his own side. But Abdul-Jalil said authorities had the names of those behind the attack and believed they were acting on behalf of the Gadhafi regime. No arrests have yet been made, he said.

Younis had been taken into custody for investigation into complaints he mismanaged forces and did not provide them with enough ammunition, supplies and food, Abdul-Jalil said.

The attackers struck while he was being transported to a safer location, he said.

Abdul-Jalil said the head of the security brigade guarding Younis is under arrest and being questioned for failing to protect him.

Younis defected to the rebellion early in the uprising, which began in February, bringing his forces into the opposition ranks. But some rebels remained deeply suspicious that he retained loyalties to Gadhafi, and many are believed to still hold a grudge against him for his policies as Gadhafi's chief of security.

Younis' deputy, Suleiman Mahmoud, has now been put in charge of the rebel's military portfolio and will bring all armed groups under one central command, Abdul-Jalil said.

"Now is the time for all these forces and formations to follow the existing plan put together by the interior minister to absorb these different groups. ... There will be a penalty for all those who don't obey orders," Abdul-Jalil said.

The coalition of NATO members participating in the air campaign against Gadhafi's forces is also under strain as public opposition mounts in Europe to the costs of the mission — estimated at more than a billion euros — at a time of budget cuts and other austerity measures.

The United States was the first to limit its participation, deciding to only provide support to the European allies. Then Italy withdrew its only aircraft carrier and part of its air force contingent. Meanwhile, Norway has announced it will pull all of its F-16 warplanes out of the operation by Monday.

The other five nations taking part are Britain, France, Belgium, Denmark and Canada.

NATO has been increasingly embarrassed by the failure of the bombing campaign, now in its fifth month, to dislodge Gadhafi's regime. With the fasting month of Ramadan due to start in early August, there is a growing realization within the alliance that the costly campaign will drag on into the autumn and possibly longer.

The only place where rebels have seen small advances lately is in the western Nafusa mountain range, where they have gradually pushed Gadhafi's forces out of a string of towns and villages, bringing them within about 60 miles (95 kilometers) of Tripoli.

In one sign that rebels were successfully holding onto territory in the mountains, families that had fled to Tunisia appeared to be confident enough to return to the area.

On Saturday, long lines formed at the Dhuheiba border crossing with Tunisia that enters the mountains, as families in pickup trucks laden with supplies returned home. Many were headed to Nalut, a town that Gadhafi's troops regularly shelled until rebels pushed them out earlier this week.

An official with the United Nations refugee agency, Lutfi ben Hamed, said about 2,000 people had entered Libya Friday, about double the daily number for the past month.

On Saturday, more than 100 cars waited on the Tunisian side to enter Libya. A similar number waited to enter Tunisia to pick up families and bring them home.

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Al-Shaheibi reported from Benghazi, Libya. Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Belgium, and Karin Laub at the Dhuheiba Border Crossing in Libya contributed to this report.