Younis, a former Gaddafi security minister and confidant, defected from the Tripoli regime with great fanfare and joined the rebel side in February, becoming part of the military leadership guiding the fight against Gaddafi’s forces. The general was popular among NATO officials and Middle East governments that support the Libyan revolution.
Although details remained murky, Younis’s death could shake international support for the opposition and rattle the divided rebel coalition, which this month gained U.S. recognition as Libya’s sole governing authority, while also strengthening Gaddafi’s resolve.
Younis was cheered when he defected, but he had many enemies. The general was distrusted by many rebels and dogged by accusations that he was still working for Gaddafi. But the Tripoli regime also hated him for what it viewed as his betrayal.
In Washington, a senior administration official said the White House was aware of the reports of Younis’s death and was working to gather details.
Rebel officials provided few details about his death. Adding to the intrigue surrounding the case, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the Transitional National Council leader, said rebel forces had been unable to locate the three bodies.
But a security officer told the Associated Press before Abdel Jalil’s announcement that officials had found three badly burned bodies and that one was known to be Younis’s.
Abdel Jalil did not name the assassins, but he said arrests had been made. Dozens of semi-independent militias and other armed groups operate in rebel-controlled eastern Libya.
Abdel Jalil said Younis had been summoned to Benghazi to answer questions about “a military matter” before he was killed, raising the possibility that rebel forces might have been involved in his death.
Reuters reported that rebel security forces had arrested Younis and two of his aides early Thursday from their operations center near the opposition’s eastern front. Security officials said at the time that Younis was to be questioned about allegations that his family still had ties to Gaddafi’s government.
Abdel Jalil called Younis a hero of the revolution. The general was a charismatic centerpiece of the rebel government and, being a defector from Gaddafi’s inner circle, he was important as a symbol. As a top military commander, he led thousands of rebel troops, though his leadership was controversial as the advance bogged down in the east.
News of Younis’s killing came as rebel forces descended from the western mountains onto the plains south of Tripoli on Thursday, capturing a string of strategic towns from troops loyal to Gaddafi.