BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Residents of Libya’s second-largest city warned on Saturday of a “revolution” to get rid of armed militias and Islamic extremists after protests spurred in part by the killing of the U.S. ambassador left four dead in an unprecedented eruption of public frustration.
In a sign of how weak the country’s post-Moammar Gadhafi leadership remains, authorities tried to stem popular anger, pleading that some of the militias are needed to keep the country safe since the police and army are incapable of doing so.
A mass protest Friday against militias against the compounds of several armed groups in Benghazi lasted into early Saturday, as thousands stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamic extremist group suspected in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate.
They drove out the Ansar gunmen and set fire to cars in the compound — once a major base for Gadhafi’s feared security forces — and then 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 said four protesters were killed and 70 injured in the overnight violence.
There were no new protests on Saturday, but the city of 1 million in eastern Libya was brimming with anger, rumors and conspiracy theories.
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 militiamen bitterly accused Gadhafi loyalists of fueling the protests. Some media reports accused militiamen of taking revenge on Gadhafi-era veterans in the military, while military spokesman Ali al-Shakhli blamed Gadhafi loyalists.
Backers of the ousted regime continue to hold sway in some parts of the country, particularly the western city of Bani Walid and parts of the deep south. Gadhafi loyalists near the southern town of Barek al-Shati have been clashing with a pro-government militia for several days, killing nearly 20, and abducted 30 militiamen from a bus, according to Essam al-Katous, a senior security official.
Since Gadhafi’s ouster and death around a year ago, a series of interim leaders have struggled to build the state from scratch and 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, 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.
Yet, authorities need them. The Rafallah Sahati Brigade kept security in Benghazi during national elections this year. Its compound, once a Gadhafi residence, contains a prison and protects a large collection of seized weapons. Ansar al-Shariah guards Benghazi’s main Jalaa Hospital, putting a stop to frequent attacks against it by gunmen.
On Saturday morning, armed Rafallah Sahati 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.”
The government has brought some militias nominally under the authority of the military or Interior Ministry, but even those retain separate commanders and often are only superficially subordinate to the state. In an attempt to assuage public anger and show renegades are being brought under control, some of those “legitimate” militiamen were installed at some militia compounds around Benghazi on Saturday.