Libyan forces raid militia outposts

Libya’s newly-elected president says all militias must come under government authority or disband.

The Libyan army says it has raided several militia outposts operating outside government control in the capital, Tripoli, while in the east, the militia suspected in the September 11 attack on the US consulate has said that it has disbanded on orders of the country’s president.

President Mohammed el-Megarief said late on Saturday all of the country’s militias must come under government authority or disband, a move that appeared aimed at harnessing popular anger against the powerful armed groups following the attack that killed the US ambassador.

On Sunday, security forces raided a number of sites in the capital, including a military outpost on the main airport road, which were being used as bases by disparate militias since Muammar Gaddafi was driven from the capital around a year ago, according to military spokesman Ali al-Shakhli.

Tripoli resident Abdel-Salam Sikayer said he believes the government is able to make this push now because it has the mandate of the people. The new government was elected in the country’s first free polls for decades, which took place in July.

“There was no trust before the election of the National Congress that is backed by the legitimacy of the people and which chose the country’s leader. There is a feeling that the national army will really be built,” he said.

The government faces a number of obstacles, though. It needs the most powerful militias on its side to help disband the rest. It also relies on militias for protection of vital institutions and has used them to secure the borders, airports, hospitals and even July’s election.

Steps taken

Some of the militias have taken steps over the past several weeks to consolidate and work as contracted government security forces that are paid monthly salaries.

In the western city of Misrata, for example, resident Walid Khashif said dozens of militias held a meeting recently and decided to work under the government’s authority. He said the militias also handed over three main prisons in the city to the Ministry of Justice to run.

Ansar al-Sharia
 Led by Mohammad Ali al-Zahawi
 The group says it has 100 members in Benghazi, but at least 3,000 supporters came to its protest on September 21
 Some of its members are suspected of being involved in the attack on the US consulate on September 11, but the group denies any involvement
 It only gained notoriety in recent months, and is linked to other more well-known ultra-conservative militias including Rafallah el-Sehati, February 17 Brigade and the Abu Slim Brigade

The authorities also decided to put in place an “operations room” in Benghazi, bringing together the army, forces of the interior ministry and defence ministry brigades comprising former rebels.

They have called on the army to impose its authority by putting its own officers at the head of brigades born out of the 2011 revolt, which escalated into civil war and toppled Gaddafi’s government.

The announcement of the ban came hours after two armed groups said they would lay down their weapons and leave their bases in the eastern city of Derna.

Derna residents say five military camps are now empty, after Abu Slim and Ansar al-Sharia, the two main militias in the area, withdrew.

“Abu Slim had three camps and Ansar al-Sharia had two. So it’s five. Empty. All empty,” Siraj Shennib, a 29-year-old linguistics professor who has been part of protests against the militias, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

The Abu Slim and Ansar al-Sharia decisions were said to have been motivated by events in Benghazi on Friday.

“The militia in Derna saw what happened last night and they decided: we will not kill our brothers. So they disbanded. They said they no longer exist as militias in Derna. They will go home and leave security to the interior ministry and army,” Shennib said of Friday’s mass demonstrations that saw Ansar al-Sharia withdraw from all its bases in Benghazi.

Shennib said anti-militia protesters had been maintaining a vigil against the groups in Derna for 10 days, and the protests became much larger after a carjacking three days ago.

“The national congress understands that the task to abolish or dissolve the illegal and illegitimate militia groups outside the legitimacy of the state will be easy task for them because public opion and people in Benghazi insist on that,” Fathi Baja, a former National Transitional Council member from Benghazi, told Al Jazeera.

Omar Turbi, a California-based analyst, told Al Jazeera that the recent demonstrations “were a clear indication that the majority of the Libyan people are not in favour of extremism”.

Residents blame the militia for creating a climate of insecurity.

‘We’ve had enough’

Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last week in which Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans died amid demonstrations over a YouTube video deemed insulting to Prophet Muhammad.

The group denies any involvement in the killing of the US officials.

“The people started coming because it has reached the limit. They are saying: we’ve had enough,” Shennib said. “It was a very peaceful operation. We are happy and we appreciate the effort the militias have done to save people from conflict.”

Turbi, speaking to Al Jazeera from Irvine, said the demonstrations against the brigades had “helped Libya’s image in the West, particularly in the United States”.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies