Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a senior Libyan military figure loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar and wanted for alleged war crimes, has been shot dead by unidentified attackers in the eastern city of Benghazi, according to medics.
The gunmen on Wednesday opened fire on a vehicle carrying al-Werfalli, seriously wounding him and his cousin, Ayman, a source who requested anonymity told the AFP news agency. The pair were pronounced dead on arrival at Benghazi Medical Centre, located near the scene of the shooting, another security source said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Born in 1978, al-Werfalli was a commander in an elite unit attached to Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of forces that has dominated eastern Libya in recent years.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has indicted al-Werfalli twice for the suspected killing of more than 40 captives, including in a 2018 incident in which photographs appeared to show him shooting 10 blindfolded prisoners.
“Simply, he was a relentless and merciless killer,” Anas El Gomati, founder of director of Sadeq Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“The testimony of not only those that have been documented the ICC, but the hundreds of families as documented by Human Rights Watch [HRW] and Amnesty International, and thousands more who live in Benghazi have lived in fear of al-Werfalli.”
In 2018, HRW said it had interviewed displaced people who said LNA-linked groups had seized their property and tortured, forcibly disappeared and arrested family members who remained in the city.
This month, al-Werfalli was shown in a widely circulated video raiding a car showroom in Benghazi alongside his uniformed men, smashing up furniture and computers as they brandished weapons.
“Benghazi is fast becoming the murder capital of North Africa … and many point the finger at al-Werfalli,” El Gomati said, adding that the commander had been promoted by Haftar.
Libya has been engulfed by chaos and repeated rounds of conflict in the wake of a NATO-backed uprising that overthrew its longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with the main rift in recent years pitting a Tripoli-based government against an administration in the east loyal to Haftar.
The fighting came to a halt, however, last year and a formal ceasefire in October has been followed by the recent establishment of a new Government of National Unity (GNU), which was selected through a United Nations-supported process. Haftar did not officially take part in the political negotiations.
The two rival administrations this month formally handed over power to the GNU, which is mandated to steer the country to elections in December. However, the security situation remains precarious in Benghazi, the principal eastern city.
According to El-Gomati, al-Werfalli’s death was a sign of LNA’s weakening position.
“It’s sociopolitical movement, a phenomenon that is losing traction,” he said. “It has lost steam and this would be a major turning point for Haftar – who over the last several weeks is facing a number of challenges – social, political and military dissidents from senior commanders from senior tribal figures in Libya.”
Tarek Megerisi, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said friction between rival factions in eastern Libya has been escalating for some time and could further degenerate into a series of retaliatory attacks.
“I think this is going to be the first major challenge for the GNU,” he said.
Besides the challenge of merging Libya’s divided state institutions and preparing for elections in December, the GNU also needs to tackle a dire security situation with power held by myriad factions.
On Wednesday, UN Special Envoy Jan Kubis told the Security Council: “Various armed groups continue to operate without hindrance, human rights violations continue with almost total impunity.”
Last week, GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh said his interim government would open an investigation after the discovery of bodies in Benghazi.