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Libyans Drive Islamic Militias From Benghazi in Massive Protest

Libyans pass by a demonstration by Ansar al-Shariah and other Islamic militias as they march against the militias in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (Photo: AP)

(TheBlaze/AP) -- Benghazi residents warned Saturday of a "revolution" to rid the city of militias and Islamic extremists after protests against the armed groups-- spurred in part by the killing of the U.S. ambassador-- left at least four dead in an unprecedented eruption of public frustration.

On Friday, protesters overwhelmed the compound of the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade in the center of the eastern city of Benghazi.  Ansar al-Shariah fighters initially fired in the air to disperse the crowd, but eventually abandoned the site with their weapons and vehicles after it was overrun by waves of protesters shouting "No to militias."

"I don't want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform," said Omar Mohammed, a university student who took part in the takeover of the site, which protesters said was done in support of the army and police.

After storming the Ansar al-Shariah compound, the protesters reportedly moved onto the base of a second Islamist militia, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade. Brigade fighters opened fire to keep the protesters at bay.

The state news agency Saturday said four protesters were killed and 70 injured in the overnight violence.

In a sign of how weak the country's post-Moammar Gadhafi leadership remains, authorities tried to stem popular anger by pleading that some of the militias are needed to keep the country safe, since the police and army are incapable of doing so.

During the day Saturday there were no new protests, but the city of 1 million in eastern Libya was brimming with anger, rumors and conspiracy theories.

Adding to the tensions, the bodies of six soldiers were found in the morning dumped on the outskirts of the city, shot through the forehead and their hands cuffed, state TV reported. An army colonel was reported missing, feared kidnapped. Some media reports accused militiamen taking revenge on Gadhafi-era veterans in the military; in contrast, a military spokesman, Ali al-Shakhli, blamed Gadhafi loyalists, saying they were trying to stir up trouble between the public and militias.

Since Gadhafi's ouster and death around a year ago, a series of interim leaders have struggled to bring order to a country that was eviscerated under his 42-year regime, with security forces and the military intentionally kept weak and government institutions hollowed of authority.

The militias, which arose as people took up arms to fight Gadhafi during last year's eight-month civil war, have typified the problem. They bristle with heavy weapons, pay little attention to national authorities and are accused by some of acting like gangs, carrying out killings. Islamist militias often push their demands for enforcement of strict Shariah law.

On Saturday, armed Rafallah Shahati militiamen - weary from the clashes the night before - guarded the entrance to their compound, standing next to charred cars. The fighters, some in military uniforms, others dressed in Afghan Mujahedeen-style outfits, were indignant.

"Those you call protesters are looters and thieves," said Nour Eddin al-Haddad, a young man with an automatic rifle slung on his back. "We fought for the revolution. We are the real revolutionaries."

Activists and protesters, however, say it is time the militias disband and the army and security forces take control. Benghazi lawyer Ibrahim al-Aribi said that if the government doesn't act, "there will be a second revolution and the spark will be Benghazi."

"We want stability and rule of law so we can start building the state, but the Tripoli government appears to have not yet quite understood people's demands," he said.

Farag Akwash, a 22-year-old protester wounded in the arm during the night's clashes, insisted, "We don't want to see militias in the city anymore. We only want to see army and police."

The Sept. 11 attack against the U.S. Consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans galvanized public anger against the militias, according to the Associated Press. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi on Friday to the gates of the Ansar al-Shariah compound, demanding the groups disband. The storming of the compound came hours later after the march ended.

President Mohammed El-Megaref called on protesters to leave alone militias that are "under state legitimacy, and go home."

Omar Humidan, assembly spokesman, acknowledged that militias "have wrong practices ... serve their own agenda and have their own ideology." But he warned that "striking these militias and demanding they disband immediately will have grave consequences."

"These are the ones that preserve security," he said. "The state has a weak army and no way it can fill any vacuum resulting in eviction of these militias. ... The street is upset because of the militias and their infighting. We are worried of the fallout in the absence of those militias. The state must be given the time."

Fathi Fadhali, a prominent Islamist thinker in Benghazi, said the description of some militias as "legitimate" just contradicts common sense.

"How can you be a militia and legitimate at the same time?" he said. "How do you leave a group of extremists taking charge of security?  Yes, you can accept their help for the short term but not long-term.

"The state must interfere as soon as possible - even, excuse me to say it, by using force - before everything collapses. I am extremely worried."

One of the protesters explained his reason for attending the demonstration: "I am out today to defend Benghazi...Killing [Ambassador Stevens] is a completely separate thing...I don't give a damn about the killing of the ambassador because the Americans offended the Prophet. I am just here for Benghazi."



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