Libyan forces give ultimatum to militias
LIBYA’S FLEDGLING authorities have sought to capitalise on massive anti-militia protests in eastern Libya by issuing an ultimatum for all rogue armed groups in and around Tripoli to vacate their bases by tonight.
One of the biggest challenges faced by Libya’s recently elected national congress is that posed by the constellation of militias that sprang up during last year’s uprising against Muammar Gadafy.
Some of these groups, many with hardline Islamist leanings, have resisted efforts to integrate into Libya’s nascent army and police forces. Others have been co-opted into loosely organised security structures under nominal government control but remain essentially independent.
“Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups,” the International Crisis group noted in a recent report.
Growing public resentment of the militias and the power they wield culminated in mass protests in the eastern city in Benghazi on Friday.
Some 30,000 people took to the streets of the city that gave birth to Libya’s revolution last year to demand the disbanding of all armed groups following the September 11th attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that claimed the lives of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“Our protest showed that the Benghazi people will not tolerate lack of security and government and they took it into their own hands,” said one resident who participated in the rally. She pointed out that the city had witnessed several violent incidents blamed on certain militias, including attacks on international agencies, consulates and Sufi shrines.
“The US ambassador’s death was the turning point.”
Some of the demonstrators went on to storm the bases of several militias in the city, including the radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, which has denied charges by Libyan officials that its members participated in the US consulate attack.
A raid on another compound, belonging to Rafallah al-Shehati, a pro-government militia that comes under the auspices of Libya’s defence ministry, prompted clashes that resulted in the deaths of at least four people.
Supporters of the militia, which provided security in Benghazi during the July 7th elections for the national congress, described the attack on its base as akin to a “counter-revolution” and claimed remnants of the Gadafy regime had manipulated the crowds.
The popular move against the militias in Benghazi appeared to push the two main armed groups in Derna, a town in eastern Libya with a long history of Islamist activity, into announcing they were dissolving.
“I believe that some militias will give in and others will resist,” said Bilal Bettamer, a Benghazi law student and activist who helped organise the Friday protest.
“Now it’s up to the people of Tripoli and other cities to reject the militias.”
The state news agency Lana reported that the army had given rogue militias 48 hours to vacate military or state properties, threatening force if they did not comply.