The head of Libya's rebel forces was shot and killed Thursday just before being brought for questioning by rebel authorities, the head if the rebel political leadership said in a tersely worded statement, the Associated Press reports.
Adding to the intrigue, rebel sources had revealed they had already detained the commander, Abdul-Fatah Younis, on suspicion his family might still have ties to the regime of strongman Muamarr Qaddafi, leading some to believe he may have been assassinated by his own side.
If so, Younis' murder would represent 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 on Qaddafi forces.
It could also shake the confidence of the NATO powers and several dozen other nations that have recognized the rebel council as Libya's legitimate leaders.
Called a Hero
Announcing the killing at a press conference where he did not take questions, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels' National Transitional Council, called Younis "one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution."
Abdul-Jalil said two of Younis' aides, both colonels, were also killed in the attack by gunmen and that rebels the head of the group behind the attack had been arrested. He did not say what he thought motivated the killers.
Younis was Qaddafi's interior minister before defecting to the rebels early in the uprising. His abandoning 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 Younis, with some praising him for defecting and others criticising his long association with Qaddafi.
Hours before the commander's death was announced, rebel military spokesman Mohammad Al Rijali had said Younis was taken for interrogation from his operations room near the front line to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Later, Abdul-Jalil presented a different scenario, saying Younis had been "summoned" for questioning on "a military matter," but that he had not yet been questioned when he was killed.
He also called on all rebel forces to intensify their efforts to find the men's bodies, but did not explain how the deaths were discovered.
Further complicating matters, another security officer, Fadlallah Haroun, told The Associated Press before Abdul-Jalil's announcement that security had found three badly burned bodies.
Two of them were dead and one was unconscious, a spokesman said, adding that one was known to be Younis, though they didn't know which one.
"We formed a fact-finding committee to go the scene because we found three bodies that were burned so badly we couldn't tell from the faces who was who," he said.
US and British officials said they were unable to confirm details of the reports but were looking into them.
Abdul-Jalil never clearly said who he thought was behind the attack, but he called on rebel forces to ignore "efforts by the Qaddafi regime to break our unity."
It is unclear how the bodies, including Younis', were identified.