BENGHAZI, Libya -- The head of the rebel armed forces was shot and killed yesterday just before arriving for questioning by rebel authorities, their political leader said in a carefully worded statement to reporters that gave few details on who was behind the killing.
Adding to the confusion, the rebels had said hours earlier they had already detained the commander, Abdel-Fattah Younis, on suspicion his family might still have ties to the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, raising questions about whether he might have been assassinated by his own side.
Such a scenario would signal a troubling split within the rebel movement at a time when their forces have failed to make battlefield gains despite nearly four months of NATO airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.
It could also shake the confidence of the United States, Britain and several dozen other nations that have recognized the rebel council as Libya's legitimate leaders.
Announcing the killing at a news conference, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels' National Transitional Council, called Younis "one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution," a name marking the date of early protests against Gadhafi's regime.
He said two of the commander's aides, both colonels, were also killed in the attack by gunmen and that rebels had arrested the head of the group behind the attack.
Younis was Gadhafi's interior minister before defecting to the rebels early in the uprising. His abandoning of the Libyan leader raised Western hopes that the growing opposition could succeed in forcing out the country's ruler of more than four decades.
Rebel forces, however, held mixed views of the man, with some praising him for defecting and others criticizing his long association with Gadhafi.
In the western Nafusa mountain range southwest of the capital, Tripoli, hundreds of rebels launched a broad offensive against government forces yesterday, seizing three small towns and advancing on others to secure a major supply route near the Tunisian border, rebel spokesmen said.
Four rebel fighters were killed and several wounded while taking the small towns of Jawsh, Ghezaya and Takut, Abdel-Salam Othman said. He said rebels captured 18 government soldiers, as well as weapons and ammunition.