Gen Abdel Fattah Younes was shot dead along with two of his aides, said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the leader of the Transitional National Council [TNC], although he did not blame the rebels and said the circumstances were unclear.
Gen Younes had been questioned by rebels earlier in the day, reportedly for having suspected links to the regime. Rebel sources said that there were many in their ranks who had not been comfortable with an army leader who had, until recently, been close to Col Gaddafi.
Gen Younes had reportedly been involved in a dispute over the leadership of the rebel forces and there were fears that his death could lead to major divisions and infighting.
Mr Jalil denied that Gen Younes had been killed by the rebels: “I ask you to refrain from paying attention to the rumours that Gaddafi’s forces are trying to spread within our ranks.”
Moments after the announcement, two vehicles loaded with an anti-aircraft gun and at least a dozen armed men shooting in the air arrived at Tibesti hotel, where the announcement was made.
A witness said that they later managed to enter the hotel with their weapons but security forces calmed them down and convinced them to leave.
“They shouted ‘You killed him,’” in reference to the NTC, he added.
He was part of the group involved in the 1969 coup that brought Col Gaddafi to power and served as his interior minister before defecting at the start of the six-month uprising in February.
Rebel security had arrested Gen Younes and the two aides, Col Muhammad Khamis and Nasir al-Madhkur, earlier in the day, with sources stating that he was suspected of having held secret talks with Gaddafi representatives. A senior member of the TNC said Gen Younes had been recalled from the front line in Brega to Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital.
Gen Younes’ home in Benghazi was heavily guarded by soldiers during the day, blocking the street and not letting anyone in, according to a witness.
Mr Jalil said that Gen Younes had been summoned for questioning regarding “a military matter”.
He said the three men had been shot before they arrived for questioning. “We received news today that ... Younes and two of his bodyguards were shot at after he was called in to appear before a judicial committee investigating military issues,” he said.
He called Gen Younes “one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution,” a name marking the date of early protests against Gaddafi’s regime.
The loss of their military commander came after the rebels took control of Libya’s consulate in London yesterday.
The TNC nominated Mahmud Nacua, a 74-year old poet, as its ambassador in London “to take over all current affairs.” The Gaddafi regime bitterly condemned Britain for severing diplomatic relations in favour of the rebel movement.
Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said the decision by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, to expel Libyan diplomats and recognise the rebel council was “a stain on the forehead of Britain” and “illegal and irresponsible”. He said the move came as a surprise.
The deputy foreign minister said Libya would try to reverse the decision by taking legal action in both the courts and the International Court of Justice.