TRIPOLI, Libya – 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 a founder and commander of the Islamist militia Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah, 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 had not been questioned by Libyan authorities and was not in hiding, and that he was going about his daily business as a construction contractor in Benghazi.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack. It has become an issue in the U.S. election season, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of being slow to label the assault an act of terrorism early on, and slow to strike back at those responsible.
U.S. officials' accounts of the night include assailants storming the compound and setting its buildings aflame, American security agents taking fire across more than a mile (kilometer) of the city, the ambassador and three employees killed and others forced into a daring car escape against traffic.
A Libyan witness interviewed in the aftermath of the attack by the AP 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 who was wearing the Afghan-style robe favored by many radicals and whom 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. Other Libyan witnesses say they saw Ansar al-Shariah trucks mounted with heavy weapons outside the consulate the night of the attack.
The overlap between Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah and Ansar al-Shariah is not clear. Libya's rebel council moved to disband Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah after the July 2011 assassination of rebel army chief Abdel Fattah Younis, a killing blamed on the Islamist group. Some militiamen say Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah fighters joined Ansar al-Shariah, which rose to prominence during fighting later in the war and was entrusted with security in post-war Benghazi.
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.
Abu Khattala declined to explain further how and why he was called upon to go to the site. Libya's government lacks a strong army and police force and has relied on militias, including in the past Ansar al-Shariah, 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."
Abu Khattala said he has not been questioned by Libyan authorities. "All this talk is baseless," he said by telephone. "I am in Benghazi, have a job and live my life normally. I have not been accused by any party with any allegations ... I am not a fugitive or in hiding."
Abu Khattala says he is originally from the western city of Misrata, but other media reports have said he was from Benghazi. He said he was imprisoned four to five times between 1996 and 2010, a time when dictator Moammar Gadhafi staged various crackdowns on Islamist groups.
During the war against Gadhafi, he fought alongside revolutionary fighters in the Benghazi front and helped form Abu Obaida bin Jarrah.
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," he said.
In an earlier interview with the AP in March, he said that "Libyan society has diverted from principles of Islam ... and Shariah should be implemented in courts," and articulated several hardline Islamist beliefs.
He defended a spate of demolitions by Islamist puritans of shrines used by more traditionalist Muslims, saying the destruction was "lawful in Islam."
While denying links to al-Qaida, he described Osama bin Laden as "a good brother who fought for a cause and died defending his belief and the outcome is not important."
He denied any role in the Younis assassination.
Elsewhere in the country, pro-government Libyan militiamen traded fire with fighters defending a former Gadhafi stronghold on Thursday as families fled for their lives, medical officials and militia members said.
Officials said that at least six people died and 80 were wounded on Wednesday, the first day of renewed fighting at Bani Walid, some 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. They had no figures for casualties from Thursday's clashes.
Violence has flared periodically over the last year at Bani Walid, the most significant town in Libya that continues to resist the control of the rebels who overthrew Gadhafi in October 2011 and subsequently formed the country's new government.
Fighters of the pro-government Libya Shield militia had besieged the town for several weeks, blaming residents for the death of a well-known anti-Gadhafi rebel. On Wednesday, saying that negotiations to hand over the suspects in the killing had failed, they launched a mortar and artillery barrage and a ground assault.
Libya's military says negotiations continue amid the fighting. Chief of Staff Gen. Youssef Mangoush told reporters in Tripoli that his forces will enter the town "after reaching a consensus among all parties" but warned that if his forces came under fire, "they have the right of self-defense."
"The people of Bani Walid will welcome our force because it represents the state," he added. The Defense Ministry meanwhile urged residents to hand over fighters who allegedly taking part in killings during and after the war.
Meanwhile, dozens of pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons headed out of Tripoli toward Bani Walid to reinforce the siege.
Bani Walid has changed hands twice in the last year. Rebels captured it last October at the end of the eight month civil war, but fighters loyal to the dictator shortly afterward rose up and expelled them, along with pro-rebel residents. There was an uneasy standoff that ended when Omran Shaaban, a rebel hailed as the fighter who caught Gadhafi, was reportedly kidnapped and killed by Bani Walid residents.
Bani Walid residents contacted by phone say they fear looting if the town falls again.
Libya is still building a national army and transitional authorities depended heavily on ex-rebel forces such as Libya Shield to secure the country.
The Benghazi attack has fueled an anti-militia backlash. The government says that it is outlawing particularly troublesome militias and appointing commanders to posts to rein in others. But many Libyans are skeptical that the fighters will accept central government authority.
Maggie Michael reported from Cairo, Egypt.