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General Abdel Fatah Younes, commander of forces fighting to oust Moamer Gathafi and once the Libyan strongman's
General Younes’s killing in Benghazi is seen as a sign of divisions within the ranks of rebels in eastern Libya.
By Dominique Soguel - BENGHAZI
right-hand man, has been killed, sparking fears of a violent backlash.
Younes was shot dead by an armed gang after he was summoned from the front by the rebel National Transitional Council "for questioning over military issues," NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said late Thursday.
His killing, and that of two military officers, is seen as a sign of divisions within the ranks of the rebels in eastern Libya even as they make fresh advances in the west in a pre-Ramadan push to drive Gathafi out.
"With all sadness, I inform you of the passing of Abdel Fatah Younes, the commander-in-chief of our rebel forces," Abdel Jalil said in a carefully worded statement at a press conference in Benghazi, the rebels' eastern capital.
"The person who carried out the assassination was captured," a somber looking Abdel Jalil said without elaborating. He added there would be three days of mourning in Younes's honour although his body is yet to be recovered.
Rumours circulated in Benghazi throughout Thursday that Younes, known as the number two in Gathafi's regime prior to his defection in the early days of Libya's revolt, was arrested and killed by rebels but they could not be confirmed by AFP.
"I ask you to refrain from paying attention to the rumours that Gathafi's forces are trying to spread within our ranks," Abdel Jalil told journalists after a lengthy closed door meeting with NTC members.
Locals in Benghazi said they feared the killing will spark violence in the capital, as members of Younes's tribe, leaders of which were at the press conference, or his troops, could look to settle scores.
Moments after the announcement, 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 later managed to enter the hotel with their weapons but security forces calmed them down and convinced them to leave.
"They shouted 'You killed (Younes)'," in reference to the NTC, he added.
Abdel Jalil also told armed groups operating as militias in a number of rebel-held cities to join NTC ranks.
"This is a last call to armed individuals inside the cities. We will not allow armed militias within city limits. They have one of two choices: They either join the front or they join under the umbrella of the national security forces inside the cities," he said.
Otherwise, he warned, tribes will take justice into their own hands.
At least three loud explosions shook the centre of Tripoli late Thursday, as Libyan television reported that planes were flying over the Libyan capital, which has been the target of NATO air raids.
Al-Jamahiriya television reported that several "civilian sites" had been bombed by NATO on Thursday.
Libyan 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 assault on Al-Ghazaya began at around 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in a two-pronged attack from the east and west that appeared to have driven loyalists out, as the town was deserted when they entered.
However, ammunition was found stored in a school and other public buildings in the town.
The rebels then moved on to Umm Al-Far and bombarded it, blowing up a munitions dump. The hamlet fell around 5:00 pm, and rebels, mostly on foot, were moving through the streets to secure them a half hour later.
The capture of Al-Ghazaya, being used as a base by Gathafi troops to fire rockets onto rebel forces in nearby Nalut town, followed a defiant speech by the Libyan leader that he is ready to "sacrifice" to ensure victory in the civil war.
The early morning assault from the surrounding mountains was part of the offensive by the rebels aimed at marching on Tripoli and toppling Gathafi.
Initial attacks had begun on Wednesday, a military source told an AFP correspondent in Zintan, in the Nalut region of western Libya.
Before the rebels overran the town, an AFP correspondent saw dozens of army vehicles pulling out in the face of rebel artillery fire from heights overlooking Al-Ghazaya.
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.