Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Thursday, 15 September 2011 14:26 UK

Gen Younes' tribe cry conspiracy and vow revenge

Watch Tim Whewell's Newsnight report in full

By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight

Leaders of one of Libya's largest and most powerful tribes have told BBC Newsnight that they will take their own revenge on the killers of the rebel commander, General Abdel Fattah Younes, if the country's new rulers fail to solve the case.

Head of the NTC Mustafa Abdul Jalil
Libya's new leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil denies any suggestion of conspiracy

Elders of Younes' Obeidi tribe said senior officials in the National Transitional Council (NTC) conspired with Islamic extremists to kill the general, whose mutilated body was found along with those of two senior aides in a valley near the rebel-held city of Benghazi on 28 July 2011.

Several of his fingers had been cut off, one eye gouged out, his stomach cut open and his body burned.

The day before his body was found, Younes - the most senior defector to the rebels from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's government - had been arrested on NTC orders, apparently over suspicions that he was failing to pursue military operations with sufficient vigour.

In an interview with Newsnight Libya's new leader, NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, strongly denied any suggestion of conspiracy:

"There were some administrative mistakes by the executive cabinet. They have been investigated - and in the light of this we have decided to reshuffle the cabinet. These mistakes had nothing to do with the subsequent killing," he said.

Switched sides

The conspiracy was concocted at the Executive Council - and they know who is behind it. They issued a summons to General Younes, they lured him, lay in wait for him - and then they did what they did to him
Othman Atia, Obeidi tribal elder

However, senior members of the Obeidi tribe disagree. Othman Atia, a tribal elder in eastern Libya told Newsnight:

"The conspiracy was concocted at the Executive Council - and they know who is behind it. They issued a summons to General Younes, they lured him, lay in wait for him - and then they did what they did to him."

Younes was a controversial figure who had served Col Gaddafi as one of his closest aides for over 41 years, most recently as interior minister. But in February he suddenly switched over to the rebel side during the uprising in eastern Libya.

As rebel chief-of-staff he was Nato's main point of contact during the UN-mandated bombing campaign.

But doubts about his loyalty to the revolution persisted. These may have led to his arrest late on 27 July at his field headquarters at Ajdabiya, west of Benghazi, just as he was about to launch a major offensive further along the coast at Brega.

Differences in account

An NTC source says Younes accepted the summons to return to Benghazi for questioning and set off calmly with his aides in two cars.

But witnesses remember an intimidating series of events in which Younes and his aides were arrested and escorted to Benghazi not by regular council forces but by heavily-armed militiamen, whom they described as being of unusually religious appearance.

Leaked documents seen by Newsnight
Newsnight has seen leaked documents from the NTC investigation

Majed Khamis, son of Colonel Muhammad Khamis, one of the general's murdered aides, said: "When we left the command centre we were astonished by the number of people and their weapons."

"The number of cars was 80 or 90, but it increased at every checkpoint, and every car was full of civilian rebels, fully armed.

"They were chanting 'Allahu akbar!' and 'Gaddafi!' and 'traitor!' - and though the phrase 'Allahu akbar' is very holy in Islam, in these circumstances it indicates that they have caught an infidel, or a traitor. Catching the general was a big achievement and trophy for them."

Witnesses say Younes and his aides made repeated and increasingly frantic efforts to contact senior NTC officials, but had difficulty getting through.

Newsnight has seen a copy of a note, handwritten by Defence Minister Jalal al-Dgheili at 0430 (0330BST) that morning countermanding the arrest warrant on the grounds that it was issued without proper authority and might damage morale at the front.

But the defence minister then hurried off to Egypt on more pressing business and his order to release Younes had no effect.

Camp deserted

Majed Khamis and Younes' son Hossam last saw their fathers alive at a military camp on the southern edge of Benghazi.

Both sons were allowed to leave the camp. But when members of the family returned later that morning they said it was deserted.

The nature of the killing suggests it was an act of personal revenge
NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil

Younes' family say that during the day NTC officials assured them that the general was safe - even that he would shortly appear at a press conference. But the only press conference was when the NTC chief Mr Jalil announced Younes' death at 2200 that night.

The NTC's internal investigation into events leading up to the arrest has not been officially published, but Newsnight has seen a leaked copy which questions the legitimacy and independence of the special judicial committee which served the arrest warrant.

It criticises the decision to appoint it, saying it was "tarnished by shortcomings".

To Younes' family and tribe the decision-making process that led to the arrest looks suspicious.

Islamist brigades

The general's nephew, Muhammad Hamid, said: "Why was this task assigned to armed militias? It can only be because there is a relationship between members of the executive board - perhaps the Council itself - and these militias."

But the NTC says it was simply a series of administrative mistakes that unintentionally delivered Younes into the hands of a fundamentalist brigade, Obaida Ibn Jarrah - some of whose members had a grudge against him.

Officials say one man has been arrested, and the identity of another murder suspect is known, part of a wider group of 16 linked to the case.

Mr Jalil said: "The nature of the killing suggests it was an act of personal revenge," adding that it was retribution for an operation by Gaddafi's forces against Islamist fighters in eastern Libya in the late 1990s.

However, Younes' family, local people and former Islamists say that he was not involved in that operation.

The general may have been killed because of suspicions that he maintained treacherous contacts with the old regime - although there is no evidence for that.

But his tribe believe the main reason is that he planned to disband independent brigades - including some led by Islamists - and merge them into a single national army.

His nephew Muhammad Hamid said: "Younes was their most dangerous enemy because he was a tough old soldier with charisma. He wanted to disarm these people and force them back to civilian life."

"These militias are outside the law. Their basic aim is to control the government of Libya. But the Council has been weak in taking action against them."

Libya's new acting Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril has now announced a plan to bring all militias under central control. But some prominent brigade commanders from Islamist backgrounds are said to oppose it.

Reining those groups in, and retaining the loyalty of Younes' Obeidi tribe - which dominates eastern Libya - will now be important priorities for the new government.

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