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Libyan protesters oust Benghazi militias

September 22, 2012

An armed Libyan man flashes the victory sign in front of a fire at the hardline Islamist group Ansar el-Sharia headquarters on September 21, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.—AFP Photo

BENGHAZI: 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 dictator Moamer Qadhafi – 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 Friday prayers 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 Holy Prophet (PBUH) 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.