BENGHAZI, Libya – Hundreds of protesters angry over last week’s killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya stormed the compound of the Islamic extremist militia suspected in the attack, evicting militiamen and setting fire to their building Friday.
In an unprecedented show of public anger at Libya’s rampant militias, the crowd overwhelmed the compound of the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade in the center of the eastern city of Benghazi.
Ansar al-Shariah fighters initially fired into 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.
No deaths were reported in the incident, which came after tens of thousands marched in Benghazi against armed militias. One vehicle was also burned at the compound.
For many Libyans, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was the last straw in one of the biggest problems Libya has faced since the ouster and death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi around a year ago: the multiple mini-armies that with their arsenals of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are stronger than the regular armed forces and police.
The militias, a legacy of the rag-tag popular forces that fought Gadhafi’s regime, tout themselves as protectors of Libya’s revolution, providing security where police cannot. But many say they act like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings.
Militias made up of Islamic radicals like Ansar al-Shariah are notorious for attacks on Muslims who don’t abide by their hardline ideology. Officials and witnesses say fighters from Ansar al-Shariah led the attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
After taking over the Ansar compound, protesters then drove to attack the Benghazi headquarters of another Islamist militia, Rafallah Sahati. The militiamen opened fire on the protesters, who were largely unarmed. At least 20 were wounded, and there were unconfirmed witness reports of three protesters killed.
Earlier in the day, some 30,000 people filled a broad boulevard as they marched along a lake in central Benghazi to the gates of the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah.
“No, no, to militias,” the crowd chanted, filling a broad boulevard. They carried banners and signs demanding that militias disband and that the government build up police to take their place in keeping security. “Benghazi is in a trap,” signs read. “Where is the army, where is the police?”
Other signs mourned the killing of Stevens, reading, “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.” Military helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, and police mingled in the crowd, buoyed by the support of the protesters.
The march was the biggest seen in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and home to 1 million people, since the fall of Gadhafi in August 2011. The public backlash comes in part out of frustration with the interim government, which has been unable to rein in the armed factions. Many say that officials’ attempts to co-opt fighters by paying them have only fueled the growth of militias without bringing them under state control or integrating them into the regular forces.
Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias.
The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was a hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi’s regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.
But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Shariah, the main Islamic extremist group in the city.
“The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous,” said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because he has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. “We felt that the revolution is going in vain.”
Leaders of tribes, which are the strongest social force in eastern Libya, have come forward to demand that the militias disband. Tribal leaders in Benghazi and Darna announced this week that members of their tribes who are militiamen will no longer have their protection in the face of anti-militia protests. That means the tribe will not avenge them if they are killed.