At least 10 die when peaceful protest against armed militias turns violent and demonstrators storm militia headquarters in Libya's eastern city.
Protesters marching in Benghazi attack militia brigades
TUNIS // At least ten people died after clashes in Benghazi late on Friday and in the early hours yesterday, when a peaceful march condemning renegade militia groups turned into an attack on the headquarters of militia brigades.
Thousands of people marched through the streets of the eastern city to call for the "saving of Benghazi" after the attack on the US consulate earlier in the month killed four Americans and underscored the problem of armed militias who have declined to be incorporated into the country's nascent security forces.
Politicians and locals hailed the action against the militias as a collective show of strength against illegitimate forces but, in the volatile city, others feared that the attacks against militiamen could escalate and that those targeted could stage revenge attacks.
Ansar Al Sharia, an ultrareligious group that rejects democratic government and seeks a rigid interpretation of an Islamist state, is suspected to have been behind the assault on the consulate. The group's members have become increasingly unpopular among some Benghazi residents.
After the rally yesterday, several hundred men armed with knives and light weapons stormed the headquarters of the group, forcing its members to evacuate, said Bilal Bettamer, a 22-year-old law student who said he helped organise the demonstration. Although the group was heavily armed, its members fled, he said, in the face of an inevitable defeat.
"It was known in the city that they were not going to last long," said Mr Bettamer. "They were not accepted by the people." He added that the group was not "evil" and had been responsible for some positive undertakings such as providing security and street cleaning. "But the people rejected them because they were not joining the army - Libyans in general are sick of militias," he said.
However, the men did not stop at burning the headquarters of Ansar Al Sharia. They moved on to the compound of a brigade known as Raf Allah Al Sahati - a brigade that fought in last year's uprising against Muammar Qaddafi but has since been incorporated into national security forces. Several other brigades were attacked, according to Fawzi Wanis, the head of the Supreme Security Council - an interior ministry body - in the city, including the Abu Salim brigade, which is under government authority.
"That is when it went wrong," said Mr Bettamer. "The crowd was moving like crazy people."
The Raf Allah Al Sahati brigade, which was said to hold over 100 prisoners and have heavy weapons in the compound, fought back. Four people were killed in the fighting, including at least one from the brigade, and six more bodies were discovered in the morning who had died of gunshot wounds, according to Fathi Al Jihani, the director of the Benghazi Medical Centre.
Dr Al Jihani said that he regretted the violence although, like the majority of people in Benghazi, he condemned the refusal of some militias to come under the umbrella of the state security forces. "I think people were misled," he said. "People took advantage of the protest and led them to places that they should not go."
The movement was hailed by many Libyan activists and politicians as a triumph of the majority who support democratic rule over an anarchic and violent minority. The leader of the interim government, Mohammed Magarief, praised the demonstrators' support for legitimate authority in Libya in a speech given on Friday, but called on them to withdraw from the headquarters of "legitimate" brigades such as the Raf Allah Al Sahati, where at least one member was killed in the fighting.
However, after a night in which fighting had become out of control, the situation in the city is now "dangerous," according to Mr Wanis of the Supreme Security Council, who had warned in a previous interview of the volatility of a place that is still controlled by fragmented groups of one-time rebels.
"We expect some problems to happen tonight," he said yesterday. "The same people as last night could do some more attacks." He added that several people had been arrested for stealing weapons from the bases, and that he anticipated revenge attacks from the groups that were targeted, although not in the immediate future. "The picture is not clear yet," he said.