Libyans fight back against militia
THE Islamic militia suspected of killing the US ambassador to Libya has been driven out of its base in Benghazi after violent clashes that saw hundreds of demonstrators fight back against armed groups in the country.
Police and protesters stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist group believed to be responsible for the murder of Christopher Stevens and three other Americans ten days ago, forcing the militiamen to abandon their base.
Up to nine people were killed, according to reports, when demonstrators stormed the headquarters of the Sahaty Brigade, another armed militia. But the group is said to be officially backed by Libya’s fledgling government and the authorities, fearful of losing control of swathes of the country, urged protesters to differentiate between what it called “legitimate and non-legitimate” militias.
The groups, a legacy of the rag-tag popular forces that fought Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime, tout themselves as protectors of Libya’s revolution, providing security where police cannot. But they now face public criticism and are accused of acting like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings.
Libyan military chief of staff Youssef al-Mangoush said three big militias – Rafallah Sahati, Feb 17 and Libya Shield – are considered “pro-government” and warned protesters against pushing for what he described as “counter-revolution” goals. The government heavily depended on Rafallah Sahati, for example, to secure Benghazi during July’s first national elections in decades. The militia took its name from an Islamist fighter who battled fiercely against Gaddafi’s forces earlier in the revolution.
The base of Ansar al-Sharia, was attacked late on Friday evening. Witnesses said supporters of the militia gathered outside the headquarters, in front of the crowd, waving black and white banners. They then fired weapons into the air in a bid to disperse the protesters, but fled with their guns after the base was surrounded by waves of people shouting: “No to militias”. Buildings were then set on fire and the fighters evicted.
In a statement a spokesman for the group said militiamen had evacuated the premises after their commander had ordered them to “hand them over to the people of Benghazi” to preserve security.
However in a standoff outside the headquarters of the Sahatay Brigade in Benghazi, nine people were said to have been killed and at least 20 injured according to witnesses and officials.
The two sides were said to have exchanged rocket and light arms fire for two hours before the brigade decided to move out. Protesters then set fire to one of the main buildings and pillaged a weapons depot.
Earlier in the day more than 30,000 protesters marched through the streets of Benghazi calling for an end to the armed groups and the return to the rule of law. There has been growing anger against the militias since the killing of the American ambassador. Omar Mohammed, a university student who took part in the attack on the Ansar al-Sharia compound said: “I don’t want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders. I only want to see people in uniform.”
The public backlash comes in part in frustration with the interim government, which has been unable to rein in the armed factions.
Many say that officials’ attempts to co-opt fighters by paying them have only fuelled the growth of militias without bringing them under state control or integrating them into the regular forces. Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against militias.
The anti-militia fervour in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gaddafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna.
But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Sharia, the main Islamic extremist group in the city.
“The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous,” said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received death threats because he spoke out against militias on a radio show he hosts. “We felt that the revolution is going in vain.”
Leaders of tribes, which are the strongest social force in eastern Libya, have come forward to demand the militias disband. Tribal leaders in Benghazi and Darna announced this week that members of their tribes who are militiamen will no longer have their protection in the face of anti-militia protests. That means the tribe will not avenge them if they are killed. Activists and residents have held a sit-in for the past eight days outside Darna’s Sahaba Mosque, calling on tribes to put an end to the “state of terrorism” created by the militias.
The violence on Friday night came to an end when Mohammed al-Megarif, head of Libya’s General National Congress, ordered protesters to leave alone militias that are “under state legitimacy, and go home.” Nearly seven hours of clashes ended shortly after his demand.
Standing next to charred cars and several pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, weary armed militiamen yesterday guarded the entrance of the Rafallah Sahati compound. “Those you call protesters are looters and thieves,” said Nour Eddin al-Haddad, a young man armed with a rifle. “We fought for the revolution. We are the real revolutionaries. We are part of the army. I have official documents to prove it.”
However, at the Benghazi Medical Centre 22-year-old protester Farag Akwash, who was wounded with a bullet in his arm, said: “If you are really an army force, you wouldn’t shoot at the people. We don’t want to see militias in the city anymore.”
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