Quarrels among rebel leadership threaten to split anti-Qaddafi opposition

Military and political wings of Libyan insurgency labour to impose a semblance of order to their ranks as uprising against 41-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi nears its second month.

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BENGHAZI // As the battle for control of the key oil town of Brega enters its sixth day, a leadership quarrel and disagreement over whether to negotiate with the Libyan government in Tripoli threaten to split the ranks of the opposition.

The military and political wings of the insurgency have laboured in recent days to impose a semblance of order in their ranks as the uprising against the 41-year rule of Col Muammar Qaddafi nears its second month.

Their envoys have dispersed across Europe to make the case for more outside aid. Libyan army veterans fighting on the rebel side have taken charge of the battlefront, replacing untrained volunteers. Meanwhile, the youth who once haphazardly led the fight have been urged to move to the rear and protect rebel gains.

Nevertheless, strains are showing. There are disagreements over who is in charge of the insurgents' military operations, Abdel Fatah Younes, a former interior minister, or Khalefa Haftar, a former army colonel who recently returned from exile. The differences pose a new challenge to a political leadership that is under great pressure to show western countries they are in control of their forces.

The lack of organisation and poor co-ordination with Nato forces, as well as the reliance on untrained youth to carry the fight to Colonel Qaddafi, came to a head last week, when 13 rebels were killed in an air strike by allied warplanes.

Abdel Hafiz Ghoka, a spokesman for the Interim Transitional National Council, called the friendly-fire incident "a tragic mistake". Major Gen Ahmed Qutrani, a rebel commander, was more blunt, however, saying the incident stemmed from military incompetence. Nato planes struck their target after young rebel fighters fired in the air in celebration, he said.

Subsequent efforts to reorganise the rebel ranks met with equally confusing, though hardly lethal, results. Colonel Masouda Mohammed learnt from a television report last week that Mr Haftar, who participated in the coup in 1969 that brought Colonel Qaddafi to power but turned against him in the 1980s and fled to the United States, was no longer her commanding officer.

At a news conference on Saturday, the Benghazi-based Interim National Transitional Council announced the creation of a "transitional crisis team" and named Mr Younes the rebel army's chief of staff, pushing aside Mr Haftar. No explanation was given.

Amember of the council's local committee in Benghazi who asked not to be named said: "Mr Haftar has a bad relationship with Mr Younes and there were disagreements between them over how to lead the battle."

While Mr Younes has an insider's knowledge of Colonel Qaddafi's military assets, supporters of Mr Haftar say he was too close to the regime in which he served in a senior post. Meanwhile, to his critics, Mr Haftar bore the stigma of exile. "He came back after more than 20 years abroad, sought the top job with arrogance, without even proving himself on the front line," the committee member said.

Anti-Qaddafi forces have hit rough spots on the diplomatic road, too.

In an interview last week with Al Jazeera, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, president of the council, appeared to call for a ceasefire. Libyan government officials turned down the offer and other rebel officials scrambled to amend Mr Jalil's conciliatory words, explaining that the president had simply reiterated previous UN declarations.

A local rebel leader in Benghazi said intense disagreements persist over the ceasefire issue, with most of the political leadership firmly opposed to any truce.

The internal friction is in some ways predictable. More than four decades of authoritarian rule by Colonel Qaddafi have fragmented the opposition and atrophied its ability to co-ordinate its activities and public message. Also, there are the inevitable tensions between Libyan opponents to Colonel Qaddafi who went into exile and those who remained at home.

There are generational clashes, too. Older Libyan army veterans who have joined the insurgency are often seen by younger rebels as part of the "institution of dictatorship," General Outrani said.

However, in a war, youthful zeal rarely outweighs a marked disadvantage in know-how and weaponry, a fact that General Abdel Fatah Younes, the rebel chief of staff, acknowledged on Monday.

"The youth were not organised, they were driven by enthusiasm," he said in an interview with The National. "Now a lot of members of the army joined the rebels, but to confront the well-trained Qaddafi forces is not an easy task."

For the rebels, there have been positive developments. On Monday, Italy became the third government to recognise the council. In addition, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, told the House of Commons that his government would provide communications equipment to the outgunned rebels in their fight against pro-Qaddafi forces.

For General Younes, however, this is still not enough.

"We need more advanced weapons - at least we need weapons that Qaddafi has," he said, specifically citing the need for helicopters. While acknowledging that rebel forces have some degree of co-ordination with Nato warplanes, he complained that co-operation left a great deal to be desired.

"When we ask them to hit a target, it takes from six to ten hours for them to strike," he said.