BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - “The rebels” is a handy phrase -- but in reality there are about 40 different rebel groups and freelance militias fighting to end the long reign of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and it shows.
Some fight Gaddafi’s troops on the front line while others handle security in rebel-held cities. And, in a country flooded with weapons, some gunmen are simply helping themselves to whatever they want, members of the armed opposition say.
The still unexplained killing of top rebel commander General Abdul Fattah Younes last week raised doubts about the loyalty to the rebel cause of some fighters.
Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam has done his best to exploit differences within the opposition, telling the New York Times he had made contact with Islamists among the rebels, and that a government-Islamist alliance would be announced within days.
He said he had been in contact with an Islamist rebel leader, Ali Sallabi -- who was quoted by the New York Times as acknowledging the contacts but as saying he remained allied with the liberal rebels trying to oust Gaddafi.
“Now the brigades and armed groups are too many. Every neighborhood has one,” said rebel fighter Yasser. “Some people use the weapons for crime and theft.”
“Everyone knows how to use a gun,” he said. “The Libyans are an armed people. Even my mother knows guns.”
Yasser’s brigade is officially recognised by the higher rebel authorities. It was raised in Benghazi by a handful of young men who took up guns to protect the neighborhood against Gaddafi forces and criminals, and now numbers over 100 fighters.
As the civil war enters its sixth month, armed groups roam the streets in the rebel stronghold, raising fears of creeping lawlessness. They drive around in pickups, firing their assault rifles into the air.
It is not always clear to which group they belong or whether it is approved by the National Transitional Council, recognised by some Western powers as Libya’s legitimate government.
“In my neighborhood there are groups who guard the area, they are not officially organized, but they have guns,” said a rebel official. “Anybody can go to the front and fight. It is easy to get a gun. If I take my AK-47 and want to fight on the front line, no one can stop me.”
Benghazi resident Essa, a steel worker before the war, proudly shows a video of 7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers made in his workshop from army weapons parts. The RPGs were used against Gaddafi’s troops on the western front in Misrata.
Others put their military loot to questionable use. Dull explosions echo round Benghazi harbor as fishermen detonate explosives in the sea for a quick catch.
U.S. officials say they are worried about reports that al Qaeda may already be smuggling arms and explosives out of Libya.
A United Nations official draws a parallel with the mayhem in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam.
“We kept telling them in Iraq that they have to secure the (weapons) stores, but no one listened,” he said. “Next we would see these weapons being smuggled across the border to Iran.”
The Mahdi Army of anti-American Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr started as a neighborhood protection force, but grew quickly in strength and was later blamed for much of the 2006-07 sectarian slaughter that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war.
The killing of Younes has raised similar concerns here.
Some rebel sources say it was the work of Islamist militiamen in the rebel ranks, and exposed the opposition to the risk of a split that could spark a tribal feud.
Armed groups such as Obaida Ibn Jarrah and Okbah Ibn Nafih brigades have been named as possible perpetrators. Both are named after companions of the Prophet Mohammad.
Some say Gaddafi loyalists were obviously behind the killing of Younes, who defected after holding top government posts for 40 years -- including that of interior minister, which would have put him at odds with Islamist opponents of Gaddafi.
Younes’s tribe has sworn to get justice itself if the rebel leaders fail to investigate his death and catch his killers.
His death was followed by a prison break by some 300 Gaddafi loyalists and a battle between rebels and the militia who helped the prisoners to escape in the center of Benghazi.
The militiamen belong to a group called Nedaa Libya, or Libya’s Call, which is not an official force under rebel authority. Fighters in Benghazi who know them never thought they might be Gaddafi loyalists until the prison break.
“We heard about them before but didn’t know they were fifth columnists,” said Faraj al-Sharif, a rebel fighter from the Martyrs of February 17th brigade. He estimates their number at 1,000 fighters, many of them still at large.
“Every time we ask them to surrender, they stop for a while then they start firing at us and shout Allah, Muammar, Libya and that’s all,” he said.
Benghazi residents now talk of Gaddafi “sleeper cells” in guerrilla ranks and mistrust is spreading among the locals, who treat everyone with suspicion.
Rebel leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, trying to soothe public anger and avert a feud, urged militias to lay down their arms or come under the orders of the Defense or Interior ministries. It remains unclear how he can follow up such exhortations.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Tim Pearce