BENGHAZI, Libya — An offer from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to open negotiations to end the three-week-old war has revealed a split within the rebel movement that controls this city and much of the eastern half of Libya.
As a rebel volunteer predicted, shaking his head, when he heard the news, "Gadhafi is trying to create a state of confusion."
By Tuesday afternoon, the division was playing out on television for all in the east to see, as the president of the rebel National Libyan Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said he'd consider negotiations. Hours later, after angry young people poured into the streets in protest, Abdul-Jalil's spokesman held a news conference to say the liberated east wasn't open to negotiations.
Whether the council truly speaks for the ragtag rebel movement that seems to have no leader has been a rising question here as it becomes obvious that the struggle to topple Gadhafi has turned into a civil war and may last a long time.
Brazen rebel fighters who easily took one town after another now are fighting to keep what they'd gained, only slightly more organized than they were when they arrived at battle in taxis and their own cars.
Tensions among residents here are increasing, and it's unclear what role, if any, the council has in organizing fighters or governing safe areas.
The sense of confusion grows as rebels come under a siege from pro-Gadhafi forces they hadn't really fought in the first heady days of the revolt.
Pro-Gadhafi forces appeared ever closer Tuesday to overcoming rebel fighters in Zawiya, just outside Tripoli, after another major offensive against the city, whose fighters are short on ammunition and food.
In the oil town of Ras Lanouf in the east, 210 miles from Benghazi on the main coastal highway that links this city with Tripoli, rebels said Tuesday night that they were facing a barrage of rocket fire.
"They are killing us!" Saleh Zway screamed as he fired his machine gun. He couldn't say more because he had to get back to the fight.
Members of the council said that Abdul-Jalil, a former Gadhafi justice minister, was speaking only for himself. They said privately that perhaps he wasn't the best person to speak for the council. But in a country where political parties were banned, no one was better qualified among them to lead the liberated east.
"I don't think there is a split. We have a problem in the character of Jalil. He does not have a strong personality," said Fathi Baja, a council member. "We will advise him before he speaks."
Tuesday morning, the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera reported that a group had traveled here to discuss negotiations for Gadhafi, as a surrogate but not on his behalf. In return for a haven for his family, access to his assets and no chance of prosecution, Gadhafi would surrender, the report said. In a later phone interview with another satellite news channel, Al Arabiya, Abdul-Jalil said that if Gadhafi forces stopped fighting for 72 hours, negotiations could begin.
No sooner than the words left his mouth than angry young rebels stormed the council headquarters and demanded to be let in. Their message: The blood of their fellow fighters couldn't be negotiated.
Then they ran to the detention center to ensure that suspected mercenaries were still in custody and not being released as part of a deal.
Young people have been called the heart of the rebellion in the east, but they can't be seen on the council, and many here say they'd never head of Abdul-Jalil until he defected from the government and became their new leader.
The council has had a hard time appearing united before. At a news conference Saturday to announce their first meeting, the 31 members sought to show a unified front even as they conceded they couldn't answer questions about how the liberated east should be governed. That was for the young people to decide, they said.
They also said they didn't want the international community to conduct airstrikes on Gadhafi targets, taking back an earlier call for such strikes. As to who was leading the rebels in battle, they also were divided: Some said a military council had been organized; others said the rebels were leading themselves.
On Tuesday, the council went on television to call on the fighters not to move forward, but the call came only after it had become clear that they couldn't without suffering a major defeat.
Abdul-Jalil didn't attend the news conference called by Abdul Hafiz Ghoqa, the council's spokesman, to refute his comments on negotiations.
Baja said that Abdul-Jalil, who lives in the town of Beyida, 120 miles to the east, would return here Wednesday to meet with the council and discuss where they all stood on negotiations.
"Tomorrow we are going to fix things," he said.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011