Africa

Libya's rebel chief who never won trust

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Media captionLibyan rebel commander Gen Abdel Fattah Younes, spoke to the BBC's John Simpson on 25 February 2011

From the moment he switched sides and went over to the rebels in February, Abdel Fattah Younes was afraid of being assassinated - and with some justification.

Last February he was Libya's interior minister, as well as the commander of its special forces.

His close friend Col Muammar Gaddafi sent him to his home town, Benghazi, with instructions to arrange a Tiananmen Square-style massacre of the demonstrators who were planning to demand an end to Col Gaddafi's rule.

But the demonstrators struck first and captured him. Gen Younes immediately announced that his plan all along had been to come to Benghazi in order to join the rebels.

The rebel leaders guessed that this was a fiction, but they could see the advantages in going along with it.

When I went to interview Gen Younes in Benghazi the next day, he was extremely nervous.

He had managed to hang on to his personal bodyguards and they were nervous too.

Gen Younes was an engaging man, well turned out and self-indulgent.

He frankly admitted his friendship with Col Gaddafi; they had been friends, he said, ever since they were at officer training college together, before the revolution of 1969.

But he maintained that Col Gaddafi was now seriously mentally unstable and that Libya had become deeply corrupt. For these reasons, as well as for sheer self-preservation, he felt justified in switching sides.

Still, his new colleagues never trusted him, and individual rebel officers often chose to ignore his orders.

Because of his unpopularity with the soldiers he was not given a field command, but headed the war from his office in Benghazi.

As a result, his murder is unlikely to affect the running of the war, which - in spite of what most Western commentators believe - is not at all in stalemate.

The intense desert heat, which means that rifles and mortars are too hot to touch by 1100, restricts the hours when fighting is possible to around four a day.

Even so, the rebels in the Western Mountains are pushing ahead reasonably fast, and are now less than 60 miles (96km) from Tripoli. In Brega, on the eastern front, they are pushing forward too.

But both Nato and their own commanders are keen that they should go slowly. Even individual officers on the ground agree.

Tribal politics

If the rebels force a way through to Tripoli and capture it after hand-to-hand fighting, the very real possibility is that the war will descend into a bloodbath on ethnic grounds.

Many people in Tripoli are frightened that the western rebels, many of whom are Berbers whose culture and language Col Gaddafi has tried to stamp out, will want to take their revenge.

The eastern rebels are an even more complex association of tribal groups, who again are much feared in Tripoli.

Image caption Libya's heat makes it impossible to fight for much of the day

Inter-ethnic fighting is a real long-term danger in Libya. For this reason, the rebels' National Transitional Council (TNC) believes it would be better if the people of Tripoli itself rose up to overthrow Col Gaddafi, rather than having the city stormed.

The assassination of Abdel Fattah Younes could itself have tribal repercussions. He was a member of the powerful Obeidi tribe, which is strong in eastern Libya.

It was noticeable that Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, a leading figure in the TNC and another defector from Col Gaddafi's regime, immediately tried to reassure the tribe.

The murder, he told them, had been carried out by a small group, and was not a wider threat to them.

In the short term, Gen Younes' death will clear out some of the rivalries within the military structure of the TNC. But it points the way to possible trouble later.

Any dictatorship stores up causes for revenge - let alone one which has lasted 42 years.

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