Libyan Islamist denies role in Benghazi attack
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- A Libyan Islamist militia commander who a witness and officials say helped lead the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi said on Thursday that he was at the building that night, but denied he was involved in the attack.
Ahmed Abu Khattala, who describes himself as the commander of the Islamist militia Abu Ubida bin Jarah, told The Associated Press by telephone that he went to the consulate in the eastern Libyan city on Sept. 11 to rescue men that he had been informed were trapped inside.
Abu Khattala said that despite reports of his involvement, he was had not been questioned by authorities and was not in hiding, going about his daily business in Benghazi.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans died in the attack.
A Libyan witness interviewed in the aftermath of the attack by the Associated Press said that Abu Khattala was present directing fighters. The witness spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.
An AP reporter was also shown a camera photo of a long-haired, long-bearded man in the Afghan-style robe favored by many radicals that other Benghazi residents identified as the 41-year-old militia leader. The consulate's gate with barbed wire could be seen in the background.
The New York Times has quoted unnamed Libyan officials as singling out Abu Khattala as a commander in the attack, calling him a leader in the hardline Islamist Ansar al-Shariah militia.
In Abu Khattala's account of the night, he was informed by phone that there was a protest at the building and that four men were trapped inside. He and his men went there to rescue them, he said. Abu Khattala declined to explain further how and why he was there. Libya's authorities have relied on militias, including Abu Ubida bin Jarah, to keep order.
"It was crowded inside, people were carrying stuff and leaving," he said. He said he saw smoke but no fire.
"It was the first time I learned that there was a U.S. consulate in this place," Abu Khattala said. "And I never learned about, met, or had any relation with the U.S. ambassador."
He said he has not been questioned by Libyan authorities and is "living normally" in the eastern city.
"All this talk is baseless," he said by telephone. "I am in Benghazi, have a job and live my life normally."
Abu Khattala says he is originally from the western city of Misrata and that he fought alongside revolutionary fighters in the Benghazi front during the last year's war against Gadhafi. He formed a brigade called Abu Ubidah bin Jarah.
After the fall of Gadhafi, the local authorities asked his militia to guard state property including a hospital called al-Hawarhi but after a while he and his forces withdrew after seeing corruption and "actions that are against Islamic Shariah law."
In an earlier interview with AP in March, Abu Khattala believes that the Libyan society has "diverted from principles of Islam ... and Shariah should be implemented in courts."