Questions about last week’s suspicious death of the Libyan rebels’ top military commander abounded on Monday, even as France pledged an additional $260 million to the rebels’ cause and the United States reiterated its support for their government.
The endorsements from Washington and Paris came as rebels worried that reports of infighting in their ranks would tarnish their reputation as the democratic alternative to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“Foreign governments are questioning our judgment and the role of the Islamists in our movement,” Mohamed, a rebel spokesman who only gave his first name, told The Washington Times. “This has hurt us in the PR battle.”
News reports over the weekend gave the impression that two factions of the rebels were fighting among themselves. However, the rebels said they were actually fighting Gadhafi loyalists in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
The fighting followed the mysterious death last week of their commander Gen. Abdel Fatah Younis, who defected to the rebels in February shortly after the uprising began.
The general served as interior minister in the Gadhafi government and may have been killed by pro-Gadhafi militants or by rebels resentful of his actions while part of the regime.
The rebel government, called the Transitional National Council, is investigating the incident.
Gen. Younis and two other rebel officers were killed Thursday, and their bodies were dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi. They had been shot and burned.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed confidence in the rebel council’s investigation.
“We do welcome … the move to set up an impartial committee that will investigate the incident,” he said.
Mr. Toner said the council speaks “on behalf of the Libyan opposition and the Libyan people, and … they’re diligently carrying out their mandate.”
The Obama administration last month recognized the council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and is freeing up $34 billion in frozen Libyan assets for the rebels.
Gen. Younis’ death has sparked a crackdown by rebels on suspected supporters of Col. Gadhafi. On Monday, rebels in Benghazi said they had arrested dozens of Gadhafi loyalists.
The rebels’ ranks are filled with technocrats, secularists, Islamists and former members of the Gadhafi regime.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who served as justice minister in the Gadhafi regime, is chairman of the rebel council, but the presence of former regime members on the council does not sit well with some Libyans.
“Once this is over, people will begin to look very closely at former members of the regime who are on the council,” said a Libyan-American, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the subject.
The rebels’ representative in Washington, Ali S. Aujali, served as the Gadhafi regime’s ambassador to the United States until his defection soon after the start of the uprising in February. He played a key role in the improvement of relations between Libya and the United States.
In an interview with The Times, Mr. Aujali pinned the blame for Gen. Yunis’ death on his former boss.
“It is Gadhafi’s crime,” he said.
“This killing has nothing to do with the freedom fighters. There are a few people whom the council knew have relations with the regime, but the people of Libya thought they were with the revolution. They managed to cheat the people,” Mr. Aujali added.
He said some residents in Benghazi continue to take their orders from the Gadhafi regime.
Rebels said Gen. Younis’ killing had not affected their morale.
“I never trusted him and never liked the way in which he was put at the helm of the army,” said one rebel, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Everybody had seen this coming,” he added.
A European diplomat, who spoke on background, said he doesn’t expect Gen. Younis’ death will have much of an impact on international support for the rebels. The diplomat said Mr. Jibril still has the confidence of his European supporters.
“We will have to wait and see where the council’s investigation goes,” he said. “I don’t see any major change in course at this stage.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe met rebel representative Mansour Seyf al-Nasr in Paris on Monday and pledged $260 million for their cause.
While France has said that the money is to be used to purchase humanitarian supplies, the European diplomat said: “Money is fungible. This first tranche frees up the other cash they would have had to use.”
Mr. Aujali also has been involved in discussions at the State Department on the process of freeing up frozen assets and implementing U.S. recognition of the rebels.
“We will have some good news very soon,” he predicted.