Libyan youth protest in Benghazi in July 2012
Libyan youth hold a picture of Libya's anti-colonialist resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar and posters reading, "I love Benghazi" during a small protest in Benghazi in July 2012. Thousands of Libyans rallied against militias in the tense city of Benghazi on Friday, drowning out a protest by radical Salafists furious over a film and cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. © Mohammed Abed - AFP/File
Libyan youth protest in Benghazi in July 2012
Last updated: September 22, 2012

Libyans rally against militias and pay tribute to Stevens

Libyan protesters ousted a jihadist militia from its headquarters and seized a raft of other paramilitary bases in second city Benghazi early Saturday in heavy clashes that left four people dead.

The seizure of the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia -- which has been accused of, but denied, involvement in the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last week -- came after tens of thousands took to the streets on Friday to protest against the power of the militias.

The group's members took flight as hundreds of protesters stormed and then torched its compound, and also evicted it from the city's Al-Jalaa hospital, where they were replaced by military police, an AFP correspondent reported.

But to the alarm of senior officials, the demonstrators also stormed a raft of other paramilitary bases in the city controlled by former rebel units that had declared their loyalty to the central government.

It was at one such base -- the headquarters of the Raf Allah al-Sahati Brigade, an Islamist unit under the authority of the defence ministry -- that the four people were killed in clashes between its fighters and hundreds of protesters, some of them armed.

Around 70 people were wounded during the overnight violence, medics at Benghazi's three main hospitals said.

Worried Libyan authorities called on the demonstrators to distinguish between "illegitimate" brigades and those who are under state control, warning that the neutralisation of loyal units risked "chaos".

The warning highlighted the dilemma facing the Libyan government a year after the overthrow of veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi -- while militias pose the biggest threat to its authority, its fledgling new security forces are dependent on former rebel units that fought in the uprising.

The trigger for the assault on the paramilitaries was a "Save Benghazi" protest after the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday that was joined by some 30,000 peaceful demonstrators.

It drowned out a smaller rally attended by just a few hundred people called by the jihadists and hardline Islamists angry over a US-made film that mocks Islam and cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by a French magazine.

Demonstrators paid tribute to Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans killed in the September 11 assault on the US consulate in the city that Washington now says was a "terrorist" attack.

"Libya lost a friend," read one banner. "We want justice for Stevens," said another.

Jihadist militants of Ansar al-Sharia fired in the air as they retreated from their headquarters in the face of the overwhelmingly superior numbers of the protesters.

On Saturday, the building was in the hands of the regular armed forces, an AFP correspondent reported.

But the protesters, angry at the power in the city of a string of former rebel groups with varying degrees of loyalty to the central government, also stormed other paramilitary bases.

Some 70 demonstrators took over the barracks of the Martyrs of Abu Slim Brigade, while others expelled militiamen from at least four public buildings, before some of the protesters moved on the Raf Allah al-Sahati Brigade base on the city's outskirts.

The two sides gave conflicting accounts of what sparked the deadly two hours of rocket and light arms exchanges that culminated in the brigade's fighters pulling out and the attackers looting the base and seizing weaponry.

"We came peacefully and asked them with our loudspeakers to disarm," said protester Nasser Saad, stressing that armed reinforcements only came after the demonstration was attacked.

But one of the brigade's fighters, Ahmed Faraj, insisted that the goal of the attackers was not the suppression of militias but the seizure of the base's armoury.

"They were coming to take our weapons," he said. "We are part of the ministry of defence, we fought in the revolution, we can't just walk away and hand over heavy weapons to a bunch of drunks and criminals."

The brigade said on its Facebook page that it had regained control of its looted headquarters on Saturday. It said one of its commanders, prominent Islamist Ismail al-Sallabi, had been lightly wounded in the fighting.

National assembly chief Mohamed al-Megaryef, who had initially welcomed the Benghazi protest, urged the demonstrators to withdraw from the bases of loyal brigades.

He named Raf Allah al-Sahati and February 17 Brigades, and Shield Libya.

Libya specialist Jason Pack said that the scale of the anti-militia protest in Benghazi showed the "depth and breadth of support for the United States that prevails in Libya in the wake of the attack on Ambassador Chris Stevens."

"Now with the people calling for a hardline anti-militia policy, Libyan leaders may find themselves steeled with the requisite courage to purge these groups from the Libyan body politic," Pack said.

But activists on the ground said they were still waiting to see what the response would be, from the government as well as the militias.

"The situation is very volatile. We don't know what the reaction will be," activist Jalal al-Gallal told AFP.

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