Libyan government regains upper hand

Clashes in Benghazi between army units and militia continued yesterday. Picture: Getty

Clashes in Benghazi between army units and militia continued yesterday. Picture: Getty

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A DAY of furious fighting in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, has seen one of the country’s most powerful militias expelled as the government finally tightens its grip on security.

Nine people were killed and more than 50 wounded yesterday in street battles between infantry units and members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia blamed by many for the killing last year of American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.

The clashes follow unprecedented scenes in the capital, Tripoli, last week when the population turned on the once-powerful militias following a massacre earlier this month.

Since the end of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Libya, militias formed to combat Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi have dominated, their clashes and turf wars bringing violence to the streets and anarchy across the country.

That began to change 12 days ago when a militia group from Misrata, based in Tripoli, killed 47 protesters and wounded more than 500 who had demonstrated against the militia.

In the upsurge of opposition, most militia forces last week left the capital, replaced by army units who arrived to cheering crowds and hooting car horns.

Similar anger welled up in the coastal city of Benghazi, where army units have fought Ansar al-Sharia members for many months amid near-daily bombings and assassinations.

Last year following the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the death of Mr Stevens, crowds stormed the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters, blaming it for the attack. But since then the militia has returned, setting up bases in the city and several other towns.

Ansar al-Sharia’s strict brand of Islam has brought it followers, not least because it offers social and welfare programmes alongside military security. But its refusal to accept government authority has seen it come into conflict with the army.

The latest round of fighting began in the early hours of the morning, with an exchange of rocket fire.

“There were rocket-propelled grenades fired, and big explosions,” said one local resident. “Then Saiqa [Thunderbolt] brigade came into the action.”

Army commanders deployed units across the capital, with the Thunderbolt special forces brigade firing anti-aircraft guns from the back of pick-up trucks at the Ansar headquarters. Militiamen replied with machine gun and rocket fire.

By late morning the base was in flames as armed residents joined the army in fighting militia gunmen at half a dozen sites. Explosions echoed through the streets and columns of black smoke rose from across Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia said 18 of its members were wounded.

Tanks were deployed at intersections and jets made screaming passes over the rooftops, with the defence ministry warning it would bomb any attempt by militias to send reinforcements from outside the city.

Confrontation was inevitable after a Tripoli militia headquarters kidnapped prime minister Ali Zaidan last month, holding him at a base for six hours until armed residents freed him.

The militias insist their role is to safeguard the revolution, saying they distrust a centralised security force. Striking militia units continue to blockade the bulk of Libya’s oil ports, starving the government of revenue.

Mr Zaidan will now hope to press home his advantage. He has argued for months that Libya must have a central security force, answerable to the state, if it is to move forward.

On Sunday in London he met foreign secretary William Hague and US secretary of state John Kerry, keen for assurances that promised military training – ­offered by the West in the hopes that internal security will stop extremists establishing safe ­havens on the Mediterranean – will materialise.

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