People power drives Islamist militias out of Libyan towns
Libyan interim leader demands the break up of all militias not under the control of the government
PEOPLE power has defeated overbearing military authority in Libya for the second time in a year after angry crowds forced militia groups out of Benghazi. The events in Libya’s second city have resulted in a call by the country’s interim leader Mohammed Magariaf for all militias not under the control of the government to disband.
"[We want to] dissolve all militias and military camps which are not under the control of the state," said Magarief in comments reported by the BBC. "We call on everyone to stop using violence and carrying weapons in the streets and squares and public places."
The wave of popular anger against the militia began with an attack two weeks ago on the US consulate in Benghazi, which led to the death of the US ambassador Chris Stevens. The attack was said to have been sparked by the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims and was blamed on the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia.
While the rest of the Arab world experienced a wave of protests against /Innocence of Muslims/, in Libya, anger against the killing of the US ambassador soon overtook any concerns over the offensive film.
In Benghazi, the protests culminated on Friday in an attack by angry crowds on the compounds of a number of militias, including Ansar al-Sharia. Its base was destroyed and yesterday the bodies of six militiamen were discovered, having apparently been lynched.
A raid by protesters on the base of Rafallah al-Sahati, a militia which has pledged allegiance to the Libyan government, was less successful: 12 people are thought to have been killed when militants fired on the crowd.
The anti-militia sentiment has spread to nearby Derna, where it has been reported that the powerful Abu Slim Brigade has promised to dissolve. Ansar al-Sharia militiamen in Derna are also said to have quit the seaside town, which had been an Islamist stronghold.
The Guardian’s Chris Stephen reports that the popular protests have been a boost to Magariaf, who had wanted to challenge the power of the militias but did not know if his army was up to the task. “Now unexpectedly he doesn’t need to do it - the people did it for themselves,” says Stephen. “It may be a game-changing moment... The government feels it can be much tougher.”
However, Stephen warns that there is now a dangerous power vacuum – and army and police units must be found that can fill the security gap and prevent anarchy.
Former US diplomat Daniel Serwer, who was an election observer in Libya, warns that we might not have seen the last of the militias. “It would be a mistake to take the uprising against the extremist militias as the final word. There is likely to be retaliation,” he says.
The crackdown against militias has already spread to the capital Tripoli, according to AFP. Commander-in-chief Yussef al-Mangush said on his Facebook page that the armed forces had arrested militiamen in a base that controlled the the road to Tripoli International Airport.
An army officer told AFP: "We will carry out these kinds of operations for the next two or three weeks until we dislodge all armed groups not under the authority of the State."