Hundreds of Libyans turned over their weapons at collection points in Tripoli, the capital, and the eastern city of Benghazi, following rallies which called for disarmament and the disbanding of militias.
A steady trickle of men surrendered their weapons to national army troops stationed in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square and in Benghazi’s Freedom Square on Saturday. There were also weapon collections in Zintan and Yefrin.
Army Col Omran al-Warfali said the turnout was impressive.
“Hundreds of citizens came since the early hours of this morning to handover their weapons from all segments of society, men and youth, women, and even children came to hand over bullets they found it in the streets,” he said.
Colonel Hussein Abdullah Khalifa in Tripoli said that the initiative was galvanised by anti-militia rallies pressing for a united army held in Libya’s two largest cities this month.
In Tripoli, at least 200 former fighters handed over their weapons, including two tanks, at the Martyrs’ square in the city centre.
A cleric urged young fighters to give up their weapons. “The nation is built with knowledge not guns,” he said standing in the square.
Ahmed Salem, an organiser of the efforts in Benghazi, said over 800 citizens handed in weapons at the main collection point.
Over 600 different types of arms were collected, including anti-aircraft guns, land mines, rocket launchers and artillery rockets.
Moussa Omr, a former fighter who lives on the outskirts of Benghazi and who fought against Gaddafi, said it was time to turn over his weapon to the state.
“When I saw the announcement on television I came to Benghazi with my wife and son to hand over my weapon to the national army because I want to move from the stage of the revolution to state building,” he said.
|Libyan NGOs, authorities, and media backed the calls for citizens to voluntarily give up their arms [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]|
Those numbers represent just a tiny fraction of the arms that spilled out of the arsenals of toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi but it was seen as a step forward in a country where many cling to their weapons citing insecurity.
Housewife Mariam Abu Swera expressed relief: “As long as there are arms on the streets, I can’t move freely or go about my normal life, so we really welcome this step.”
Previously, the government had estimated that over 200,000 people in Libya are armed. It has attempted a number of disarmament schemes, including offering people jobs in exchange for handing over their weapons, or offering to buy guns. Those offers have shown few results.
A call by the Libyan chiefs of staff was promoted on a private TV station in August, but it may have gained traction in the wake of the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi in which US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.
The incident was followed by a popular uproar against armed militias which have increasingly challenged government authorities. Anger at the militias boiled over after the September 11 attack on the US consulate.
Last weekend, thousands of protesters marched against the militias in Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising against Gaddafi, and stormed two of their compounds.
On Friday, hundreds of people rallied in Tripoli in support of a national army and against armed groups.
The collection drive is a collaboration between the national army and private television station Al-Hurra, which drummed up support through its live broadcasts from Tripoli and Benghazi.
Organisers in both cities will raffle off prizes, including two cars, at the end of the day-long collection. They said the process was not a one-off event and would be repeated to include other cities.