BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Assailants tried to kill a prominent Libyan Islamist leader by planting a bomb under his car in an apparent revenge attack dating back to the uprising that ousted veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi, police said on Monday.
One of the suspects was killed during the assassination attempt late on Sunday on Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is being investigated by the United States after the attack on its consulate in Benghazi in which its ambassador was killed.
“I was in the house when the bomb went off. Two men tried to put a home made bomb under my car which was parked outside the house but it exploded first. One man ran away, the other died,” Abu Khattala told Reuters by telephone.
Lieutenant Colonel Younes Ahmed of the Benghazi police department confirmed two people tried to plant a bomb under Abu Khattala’s car, and that one man died in the explosion.
Police said the motive likely dated back to the splintered loyalties of the conflict that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011 after 42 years in power.
Tribal and historical loyalties still run deep in Libya, which is struggling to maintain central government control in a country where armed militia wield real power and meaningful systems of law and justice are lacking after the crumbling of Gaddafi’s eccentric personal rule.
Ahmed said the suspects were relatives of a military fighter, Lieutenant Ahmed Nasser Madhkour, who was killed at the same time as rebel military chief Abdelfattah Younes, a former Gaddafi loyalist who had defected to the rebels.
“It seems the men who attempted the assassination were trying to avenge the death of their relative. They still blame Abu Khattala for the killing,” Ahmed said
Abu Khattala’s war-time militia, the Obeidah al-Jarrah brigade, was blamed in the killing in July 2011 of Younes.
Younes was involved in the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power. He was interior minister before he defected and took a senior position in the rebellion in February 2011.
Some rebels, especially hardline conservative Islamist fighters who were persecuted under Gaddafi, were never happy to serve under a man who had been so close to Gaddafi.
Abu Khattala was questioned by Libyan authorities but released because no evidence directly linked him to the killing. He said he later broke up his militia group.
U.S. government sources have said that Abu Khattala is being investigated as a suspect in the consulate attack in September last year that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
U.S. investigators are not clear if he played a role in leading or organizing the attacks, but in an interview with Reuters in October, Abu Khattala said he was present at the consulate during the attack but was not its ringleader.
In December he said he had still not been called in for questioning by the Americans or Libyan authorities.
Reporting by Ghaith Shennib; Writing by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Alison Williams