Protests against Islamic militias, believed to be responsible for the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stephens, turned violent today when the crowd stormed the headquarters of two militia groups leaving at least three dead and several injured.
Benghazi, Libya. In an unforeseen turn of events, protests by pro-government crowds turn violent in Libya today. Hundreds of supporters of the Syrian government stormed the strongholds of militia groups in Benghazi in an effort to drive out the militant forces holed up there. When the militants resisted the confrontation turned bloody with at least three people being reported dead and 20 wounded according to the latest reports.
“Three people are dead. We have also received 20 wounded," AFP reported citing a medical source.
The protests took place at the headquarters of a militant group Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Salafist group. Initially resistant members of the group fired into the air to disperse the crowds but when it became obvious that the crowds were not planning on dispersing the militants abandoned their weapons and vehicles which had been overrun by the protesters.
Ansar al-Sharia is an Al-Qaeda inspired group who played a role in the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The groups name means “Supporters of Sharia Law” and they are known in Libya for their talk about imposing a strict version of Islamic law.
Some of the crowd involved in the protests claim to have freed several prisoners or captives from within the building itself before torching it. The protesters have also indicated that they intend to take over more Ansar al-Sharia buildings in the future.
The motivation of the crowd was apparent as many of them made it a point to highlight that they were not willing to allow militias to impress their own kind of justice and laws.
"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.
Protesters also held up banners in which they expressed their support of the Libyan armed forces and a growing anger with the militia groups who have refused to surrender their weapons to the central government or to disband. The militant groups are a legacy of rag-tag forces that fought Qaddafi’s regime and have touted themselves as protectors of the people. Protesters say that they are more like gangs who detain people, intimidate rivals, and carry out killings.
“No to armed formations", "Benghazi is in a trap," signs read. "Where is the army, where is the police?"
The multiple gangs of militants are better armed than the police, having added substantially to their supplies and supplementing their weaponry with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. They are also notorious for attacks on other Muslims who do not follow their hard-line ideologies.
After taking the Ansar compound the protesters then drove to the Benghazi headquarters of another Islamic militia group, Rafallah Sahati. It was there that the protests turned bloody when the members of the militia open fired on the protesters, who were largely unarmed. However, once the fighting started the groups are believed to have exchanged small arms and rocket fire for several hours before the fighters finally moved out.
The BBC's Rana Jawad in the capital Tripoli says the Rafallah Brigade is believed to be operating under the authority of the Ministry of Defence.
Mohamed al-Magariaf, president of Libya's General National Congress, asked the protesters to cease their activities and go home despite earlier in the day thanking the people for helping to evict “armed gangs” after the taking of the Ansar compound, which the protesters were asked to turn over to Libyan army.
Army General Naji al-Shuaibi said the citizens, whom he referred to as "revolutionaries of the February 17 uprising," later asked that the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters be handed over to the Libyan army.
"Indeed, we rushed here and we will now take it over," said the general. "There are also other places that we intend to take over (which belong to armed groups) if the revolutionaries and the people allow us to do so."
Earlier in the day over 30,000 protesters filled the streets of Benghazi before marching on the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah. They demanded that the militias be disbanded and that the regular police and military should take control of the city. Others decried the official paying of these militia, saying that it only made them stronger. The march, called “Rescue Benghazi”, was the biggest seen in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi in August 2011 and was staged in Libya’s second largest city. Benghazi is home to over 1 million Libyans. Residents of other cities, most notably Darna, have also begun standing up to and actively opposing militia groups like Ansar al-Shariah.
Darna is particularly notable because it has long been a hotbed of Islamic jihadists who were opposed to Qaddafi’s rule. The city has a reputation for being a stronghold of Islamic extremists and many of the Libyan Jihadists who travelled to fight American lead forces in Afghanistan and Iraq found their roots in Darna. Darna's residents tend to be more conservative but largely don't fit the city's reputation as extremists. Women wear traditional Muslim headscarves, but not the more conservative hijab that covers the entire body and face.
Among the protesters, in Benghazi, there were pro-American sentiments and support for the slain American Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Signs held by the crowd read
“The Ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend”
One man took it even further commenting “I am sorry America, this is the real Libya”
Ambassador Christopher Stevens was one of four people that was killed when a group assaulted the American consulate in the eastern Libyan city. Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attacks, and the protests that were organized to allegedly protest an inflammatory film made in the United States that mocks the Prophet Mohammed. On Thursday Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur announced that eight people being held in connection with the attacks were members of Ansar al-Sharia and that not all the participants had come from within one group.
There has been mounting evidence that the attack on the American consulate was well organized and carried out by men that were heavily armed with military efficiency. On Friday American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the assault on the consulate a terrorist attack and vowed that the US government would track down those responsible.
"What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans." She said.
American officials have told the AP, that the assault on the consulate was designed to look like a protest that spun out of control and resulted in the death of Americans. However, details have emerged showing that the consulate attack was a well-planned and sophisticated operation that relied on military style tactics.
Meanwhile in Darna, one elder at the Sahaba Mosque, Ramadan Youssef had a stark warning for the militia groups.
"We will talk to them peacefully. We will tell them you are from us and you fought for us" during the civil war against Qaddafi. But "if you say no (to integrating into the) police and army, we will storm your place. It's over."
A sentiment cheered by Arizona Senator, and former US Presidential nominee, John McCain who said that today’s protests represented the true freedom-loving Libya him and other diplomats knew. He added
"Somewhere Chris Stevens is smiling. This is what we knew ... about Libya."