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U.S./World

Islamist militia leader denies role at Benghazi

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, 7:54 p.m.

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 who 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.

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.

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.

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 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

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.

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