POSTED: 7:33 a.m. HST, Jul 31, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 8:49 a.m. HST, Jul 31, 2011
BENGHAZI, Libya>> Clashes between rival factions of the Libyan rebels killed four people Sunday in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, deepening the worst crisis so far for the movement after its chief military commander was killed, possibly by fighters from his own side.
One rebel group overran the base of another faction because they suspected that faction had freed some supporters of Moammar Gadhafi from an opposition prison, Rebel Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said.
He said the clashes between rebel security forces and members of the al-Nidaa Brigade broke out around 3 a.m. on the western outskirts of Benghazi and left four rebels dead and six wounded. The main rebel force took control of al-Nidaa's base after five hours of fighting, he said.
The violence comes two days after suspected al-Nidaa members attacked two prisons in Benghazi, facilitating the escape of some 200 to 300 inmates, including mercenaries, pro-Gadhafi fighters and regime loyalists.
The clashes, coupled with Thursday's killing of chief rebel commander Abdel-Fattah Younis in yet unexplained circumstances, point to divisions within the rebel ranks that could sap the movement of much-needed unity in its push to topple Gadhafi nearly six months after the revolt began.
In the Nafusa mountains of western Libya near the Tunisian border, rebel forces said they were making gains in their push against Gadhafi forces.
On Sunday, they said they were in the town of Hawamid and advanced another 6-9 miles (10-15 kilometers) toward the small town of Tiji in the last 24 hours.
"Hundreds of rebel fighter are surrounding Tiji," said Jamal Motawa, a 26-year-old rebel who was one of seven wounded in the fighting. Motawa had shrapnel in his left leg.
Pro-Gadhafi forces inside Tiji were under siege but continued to attack the advancing rebels with rockets, according to Motawa.
Tiji is on the main road from the Tunisian border to Tripoli, the Libyan capital. It is considered a strategically important town if rebels were to continue their advance to Tripoli, some 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northeast.
Rebels in the Nafusa mountains have been making modest advances against Gadhafi's troops, but fighting in the east has been stalled for months, with neither side able to make any significant progress.
Despite the slow pace of events on the ground, France, one of the rebels' main outside backers, is counseling patience.
In an interview published on Sunday, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet addressed the growing pressure for a quick resolution to the Libya conflict, insisting that "impatience is never a good adviser" and that rebel fighters don't deserve the blame.
"Things have to move in Tripoli. To put it clearly, the population has to rise up. The month ahead will naturally be intense. There will not be, I think, a pause because of the month of Ramadan," Longuet said.
On Sunday, a day after NATO airstrikes bombed three Libyan state television satellite transmitters in Tripoli, a spokesman at NATO's operational headquarters in Naples said the alliance had seen reports of casualties among the TV network's employees.
"We are aware of the allegations related to this subject," said a NATO official who could not to be identified in line with standing restrictions. "We cannot confirm them since we have nobody on the ground there."
He noted that the Libyan government had on several past occasions claimed that NATO airstrikes had killed civilians, but that most of these proved to be false.
On Saturday, the head of Libyan state TV's English-language section told reporters in Tripoli that three state television journalists were killed and 15 other people were wounded in the NATO strikes.
"We are not a military target. We are not commanders in the army and we do not pose a threat to civilians," Khaled Bazelya said.
The strike on Tripoli's TV transmitters was not NATO's first attack on a television installation. During the bombing of Serbia in 1999, an airstrike on the state-run network's studios in Belgrade killed 16 employees.
At the time, NATO justified the attack by claiming the TV network was fomenting violence and serving as the propaganda mouthpiece of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
On Saturday, NATO made a similar claim, saying its strike on Libyan TV was launched because Gadhafi was using it to "incite acts of violence."
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Nalut, Libya, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.