General Adbel Fatah Yunis was shot dead by a gang after he was summoned from the front by the National Transitional Council "for questioning over military issues".
Blow for Libyan rebels as military chief murdered
BENGHAZI // The murder of General Abdel Fatah Yunis, commander of forces fighting to oust Moammar Qaddafi, remained cloaked in mystery Friday, as rebels pointed the finger of blame at the Libyan leader.
Yunis was shot dead by a gang after he was summoned from the front by the National Transitional Council "for questioning over military issues," NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said late on Thursday.
His killing, and that of two officers with him, deals military and political blows to the rebels that could indicate divisions within their ranks, even as they make fresh advances in a pre-Ramadan push to oust Qaddafi.
"With all sadness, I inform you of the passing of Abdel Fatah Yunis, the commander-in-chief of our rebel forces," Abdel Jalil said in a statement at a news conference in Benghazi, the rebels' eastern capital.
"The person who carried out the assassination was captured," a somber looking Abdel Jalil said without elaborating, moments before armed men stormed the hotel where he was speaking and accused the NTC of the assassination.
Two vehicles loaded with an anti-aircraft gun and at least a dozen armed men shooting in the air arrived at Tibesti hotel, where the announcement was made.
A witness said that they managed to enter the hotel with their weapons but security forces calmed them down and convinced them to leave.
"They shouted 'You killed (Yunis),'" in reference to the NTC, he added.
Abdel Jalil said there would be three days of mourning for Yunis, and around 200 mourners paid their respects at a wake early on Friday at the general's villa in Benghazi, a witness said.
In London, Britain's minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, said he condemned the assassination and had delivered his condolences to Abdel Jalil.
"Exactly what happened remains unclear. I welcome chairman Abdel Jalil's statement yesterday that the killing will be thoroughly investigated, and he reiterated this to me during our conversation.
"We agreed that it is important that those responsible are held to account through proper judicial processes."
The assassination of Yunis, Libya's interior minister and Qaddafi number two before defecting in February, has fuelled widespread rumours that the rebels themselves arrested and killed him for treason.
Meanwhile, a senior opposition figure in Benghazi accused Qaddafi on Friday of playing a role in the killing.
Early reports from Tripoli that Yunis had been killed suggested Qaddafi wanted it in a bid to get rebels to withdraw from the strategic eastern oil town of Brega.
"All these are signs Qaddafi was behind it," the official told AFP, asking not to be named.
Yunis was killed after being called back from the front line, which lies near Brega.
The official downplayed the risk of any divisions in the ranks of the rebels or score-settling by tribes.
"I think this problem will pass with no big consequences because people know it is to Qaddafi's benefit and people are against Qaddafi. Even his tribes were reasonable knowing it is trap by Qaddafi to make problems."
Two of the leaders of the Al-Obeidi tribe, to which Yunis belonged, were alongside Abdel Jalil when he announced the assassination.
The scenario that the rebels may be fighting among themselves could pose awkward problems for the many Western powers who have recognised the NTC as the sole legitimate authority in Libya.
Rebel leaders tried to damp down the speculation.
"I ask you to refrain from paying attention to the rumours that Qaddafi's forces are trying to spread within our ranks," Abdel Jalil told journalists after a lengthy closed door meeting with NTC members.
At least three loud explosions shook the centre of Tripoli late Thursday, as Libyan television reported planes were flying over the capital, which has been the target of NATO air raids.
Al-Jamahiriya television said several "civilian sites" had been bombed by NATO on Thursday.
Rebels seized two localities near the Tunisian border earlier in the day as part of their offensive ahead of the start early next week of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, an AFP correspondent said.
The first was the town of Al-Ghazaya, some 12 kilometres (eight miles) from the frontier, and the second was Umm Al-Far, a hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants 10 kilometres northeast of there.
The Nafusa mountains have seen some of the fiercest fighting between loyalist troops and rebel forces.
The two sides had fought their way into a stalemate five months after the start of a popular uprising that quickly turned into a civil war.
The Libyan leader controls much of the west and his Tripoli stronghold, while the opposition holds the east from its bastion in Benghazi.
In Brussels, a NATO official told AFP Norway will fly its last combat mission in Libya on Saturday, two days before the official end of its role in the air war.
But a Norwegian military spokesman, Colonel Petter Lindqvist, refused to confirm that.