Libya's vow to rein in militias is immediately challenged

The Libyan government promised to bring under control or disband all militias, but within hours of the announcement, one group threatened to blow up the de facto government headquarters. 

Anis Mili/REUTERS
Libyan security forces gesture as they head to a compound which had been taken over by an armed group in Tripoli September 23, 2012. Libya's army on Sunday ordered rogue armed groups in and around Tripoli to leave state and military premises or be ejected by force, apparently seeking to capitalize on the withdrawal of militias from Benghazi and Derna.

The Libyan government said Saturday that all of Libya’s militias would be brought under government control or forced to disband within 48 hours, but was quickly challenged.

“We are disbanding all armed groups that do not fall under the authority of the government,” said President of the General National Congress (GNC) Mohammed Magarief. “We are also banning the use of violence and carrying of weapons in public places. It is also illegal to set up checkpoints.”

Within hours, however, the government faced its first challenge from some of its insubordinate security forces and the extra-judicial militias.

On Saturday afternoon Libya’s Tripoli Rixos hotel was stormed by members of the Supreme Security Council (SSC) – an amalgamation of security forces which fall under the jurisdiction of the interior ministry – who threatened to blow it up. The Rixos Hotel serves as a de facto headquarters for the Libyan government.

The SSC men were angered by the lack of support they had received from the defense ministry following fierce clashes between the SSC and alleged Gadhafi loyalists in the town of Brak in central Libya.

Clashes between the two groups started on Wednesday after SSC members tried to arrest a number of Gadhafi sympathizers who had been celebrating Gadhafi’s “Fateh Revolution Day” on Sept. 1.

Many of the SSC members are Salafists and the group is said to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood

In the arrest attempts they shot dead the sister of one sympathizer as they tried to arrest her brother at the family home. During the melee six people, mostly SSC members, were killed. There was a lull in the fighting on Thursday but on Friday deadlier clashes broke out again with the death of another 16 SSC members and the wounding of 50.

During the week preceding the bloody confrontations, tensions had been building in the town following the alleged mistreatment of locals by the SSC.

After running low on ammunition, the SSC men withdrew from Brak and returned to Tripoli with the bodies of their comrades. They then stormed the Rixos Hotel after claiming that Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al and Defense Minister Osama Juwaily had refused to provide them with weapons, more ammunition and ambulances despite promises made by the defense ministry.

The two men had also ignored their repeated requests for a meeting.

The incident ended without casualties. 

However, at least 14 people were killed and more than 70 wounded following the storming of several militia bases in Benghazi by thousands of unarmed, angry Libyans on Friday.

The attack on the militia bases followed a “Save Benghazi” mass demonstration in the eastern city which was held to protest the deteriorating security situation in the city which has witnessed a spate of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations over the last few months.

Libyans have been angered by what they see as government complacency and even collusion in a number of militia attacks, including the targeting of Sufi shrines and mosques in several Libyan cities. However, the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, allegedly by Islamists from the Ansar Al Sharia Militia, during the storming of the US Consulate several weeks ago was a trigger.

The Libyan government has been either unwilling or unable to control the hundreds of armed militias which still control large areas of the country.

Unarmed, thousands of protestors set the headquarters of Ansar Al Sharia ablaze, causing the gunmen to flee. They then moved on to several other militia bases which were not connected with the Islamists and forced the gunmen there to also flee.

The reprisals began early the next morning when the bodies of five soldiers from the defense ministry were found on the outskirts of Benghazi. They had been shot in the head, execution style, while their hands were tied behind their backs. A sixth member remains in critical condition in hospital.

The killing of the five soldiers, who were not related to any militia or Salafist group, was thought to have been carried out by militia members in revenge for what they said was the involvement of the army and police members in helping to orchestrate Friday’s protests which targeted them.

Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent

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