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The Gathafi regime said on Sunday it was in contact with members of the rebel National Transitional Council as the

The battle continues

UN Council ready to ease Libya sanctions as three journalists killed in NATO raid.


By Dominique Soguel - BENGHAZI, Libya

 rebels tried to quash rumours about the mysterious death of their army chief.

In Tripoli, deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim said Libyan leader Moamer Gathafi's government was in contact with members of the rebel NTC, but denied rumours of contacts with General Abdel Fatah Yunis, who was killed on Thursday.

"There are contacts with Mahmud Jibril (number two in the NTC), and (Ali) Essawy (in charge of external relations), (religious leader Ali) Sallabi and others," Kaaim told a news conference.

On talk of recent contacts between the regime and Yunis, Kaaim said: "He was in contact with the government during his visit in Italy two months ago.

"Since then we had no contact with him despite (the fact that) we still have other contact with other members of NTC but not with Abdel Fatah."

The rebels, who have frequently denied having any direct negotiations with the Gathafi regime, sought on Saturday to stamp out rumours by providing details on Yunis's killing and tightening security in their Benghazi bastion.

NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Yunis had been summoned from the front by a committee of four judges with the knowledge of the NTC's executive committee, the rebels' de facto government.

"The recall of General Fatah Yunis from Ajdabiya was based on a warrant that was issued with the knowledge of the executive committee" of the NTC, he told reporters.

"I don't know why this arrest (warrant) was issued and we don't know who was present at the meeting when the decision was made... or on what basis the decision was made."

On Thursday, Jalil said Yunis, linchpin of Gathafi's regime before defecting to the rebels fighting to oust the strongman since February, had been killed by an armed group after being summoned to answer questions on military matters.

On Saturday, Jalil said Yunis died after being shot in the chest and head.

He ordered all brigades -- or katibas -- operating in Benghazi to disband and come under the fold of the interior ministry to boost security and unity.

Military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said the judges who summoned Yunis for questioning did not have the authority do so and that the defence minister had written a letter recalling the arrest warrant.

He refused to identify suspects arrested in connection with the killing, saying they are innocent until proven guilty.

"When the full truth is known it will be put to the people and the whole world," he said, adding that meanwhile he "will cut the road to those trying to start up rumours among the revolutionaries."

Mahmud Shammam, who handles media relations for the rebels, slammed foreign and local journalists over coverage of the killing, saying "irresponsible news" was being published.

In Zuwaytina, the Union of Revolutionary Forces late on Saturday dismissed reports that Yunis was a traitor killed by his own people for providing strategic military information to Gathafi's regime.

"Anybody can say anything but all this big talk needs proof. The chief of staff was always with us from the beginning," said Fawzi Bukatif, spokesman for the Union of Revolutionary Forces and head of the February 17 brigade.

The Union of Revolutionary Forces, formed on July 13, provides a unified command structure for fighters from volunteer brigades, who now come under the authority of the rebels' defence ministry.

Bukatif called Yunis's murder a "cowardly act" and said it took place without the knowledge or consent of the Union of Revolutionary Forces.

He said brigades not affiliated with the union had arrested Yunis.

Bukatif said that the Obeida Ibn al-Jarah brigade, which an NTC member had mentioned as a potential culprit, was not part of the rebel body and no longer fighting on the front near the strategic oil hub of Brega.

He added that Mustafa Rubaa -- who belongs to the Union of Revolutionary Forces "as an individual" but not as part of a brigade -- had been detained for his alleged role in the arrest of Yunis.

Meanwhile, the Benghazi villa of the murdered general was surrounded by checkpoints early on Sunday and no traffic was allowed on the coastal city's main highway amid unconfirmed reports of clashes.

South of Benghazi, rebels reported an attack by pro-Gathafi forces on the southern oasis town of Jalo, but said it had been successfully repulsed.

Gathafi's regime, meanwhile, accused NATO of killing three journalists in an air strike on state television on Saturday and said that the murder of Yunis proved that Al-Qaeda was behind the country's armed revolt.

Meanwhile diplomats said that the UN Security Council is ready to release Libyan assets frozen under UN sanctions to buy humanitarian aid.

Aid groups across Libya have reported shortages of basic items such as vaccines and painkillers. They say stockpiles in the Gathafi-controlled west and the rebel-held east have been rapidly depleted by five months of war.



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