THE Thunderbolt Brigade, Libya’s special forces, buried their dead this week after a battle with Islamist militias in Benghazi on Saturday left 31 dead.
The fighting was the worst so far between regular forces and the militias and has left Libya a tinderbox.
Thunderbolt troops fired anti-aircraft guns into the sky at Benghazi’s el-Harawi cemetery, as an honour guard lined up at the graveside of one of their troopers and fired off a volley.
The dead soldier died after having both legs amputated. His comrades said that he had returned to service despite being wounded fighting against Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forces during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
They are angry both at the loss of comrades and at allegations the army chief of staff, Yusef Mangoush, who resigned on Sunday, was partly to blame.
“The chief of staff did not let us go to protect the demonstrators on Saturday, we could have saved them,” said Lieutenant Said Alari. Now the battle lines are drawn pitting regular forces against militias in a struggle that has left this eastern Libyan city on a knife edge.
Saturday’s carnage came when protesters, furious Libya Shield militia had not obeyed government calls to disarm, marched on their main base.
“It’s hard to say who started it,” said Ahmed Bargafi, who runs a car repair shop nearby. “Shots were fired, someone threw a hand grenade, it was a big battle. I didn’t hang around.”
When the Thunderbolt Brigade arrived to try to get between the militia and the protesters, the road was littered with dead and wounded.
The brigade then stormed the base, with Libya Shield militiamen fleeing. Meanwhile, the dead and more than 80 wounded flooded city hospitals, arriving by ambulance and cars. “We couldn’t cope,” said Fathi Lamani, administrator at Jala hospital.
Government forces have now taken control of all four Libya Shield bases in Benghazi, but it is unclear if they will disarm.
Diplomats fear the growing power of the militias may be nudging Libya towards civil war. Critics say their goal is political power. In March, they stormed the parliament, subjecting MPs to a 12-hour siege. Then in April they blockaded the justice and foreign ministries, demanding that “revolutionaries” take the place of ministers.
“They [Islamist hardliners] want the interior, defence, foreign and justice ministries; once they control these they control Libya,” said Fathi Baja, a civil rights activist set to become Libya’s ambassador to Canada.
The militias deny this, saying their targets are former senior Gaddafi-era officials still in office. But in Benghazi, attitudes are hardening. “I am not political, I joined the militia to help guard Libya, the army is too small for that,” said Libya Shield militiaman Hamza Gihani. “I don’t know if the Shield will continue, and its disappointing. I need the money.”
The decision of Mr Mangoush to pay militia salaries is one of the complaints from the regulars, who said he should have been encouraging the formation of professional forces instead.
And they have other complaints. Inside the wreckage of the Libya Shield base is a secret jail the militia built by converting toilet stalls with iron doors and cages welded around them. On one of the empty cells an inmate had scratched the days he was held on the plaster, ending in 147. His fate is unknown.
Libya’s new chief of staff Salem el-Gnaidy has now arrived in Benghazi to pour oil on the waters. “We admit lots of mistakes,” he said. “Benghazi is the key to Libya, if Benghazi is down, all Libya is down.”