Libyans evict armed group from Benghazi base

Crowds force Ansar al-Sharia, suspected of playing a role in US ambassador’s death, to vacate its compounds in the city.

Up to four people have died and dozens of others injured after demonstrators in Benghazi stormed the compounds of militias based in the eastern Libyan city.

Protesters seized the headquarters of the Ansar al-Sharia militia and evicted its fighters from its military bases in the city on Friday night.

The confrontation appeared to be part of a co-ordinated sweep of militia headquarters buildings by police, government troops and activists following a mass public demonstration against armed groups earlier in the day.

At least four people were killed and 34 wounded in Friday’s violence, Reuters news agency reported quoting hospital sources.

Ansar al-Sharia announced on Saturday it had evacuated its bases in Benghazi in the interest of security.

“The commander of the battalion gave orders to members to evacuate their premises and hand them over to the people of Benghazi,” Yousef al-Jehani, a spokesman for the group, said.

“We respect the views of the people of Benghazi, and to preserve security in the city we evacuated the premises.”

Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last week in which Christopher Stevens, 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.

Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have of late been also accused of kidnappings and killings.

Storming of headquarters

Friday night’s raids followed protests earlier in the day when around 30,000 protesters from the Save Benghazi group marched through the city’s al-Kish Square, which was a key battleground in the uprising that overthrew Gaddafi.

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

At the same time, about 3,000 supporters of Ansar al-Sharia group gathered in the same area. Waving black Islamic flags, they chanted against the anti-Islam video as also cartoons of Prophet Muhammad published by a French satirical weekly.

Next, hundreds of demonstrators chanting “Libya, Libya” entered Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters, pulling down militia flags and torching a vehicle inside what was once an internal-security base under former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

People in the crowd waved swords and even a meat cleaver, shouting “No more al-Qaeda!” and “The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!”

They tore down the banner of group while chanting “No! No to the brigades”.

After raiding Ansar al-Sharia’s headquarters, the crowd swelled until it had reached thousands. Hundreds of vehicles backed up a highway as youths from across Benghazi converged on the city’s western Hawari district to raid the headquarters of Rafallah Sehati, an official brigade of the Libyan defence ministry.

Ismail Salabi, leader of the Rafallah Sehati, which is credited with securing the nation for parliamentary elections, told Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid in Benghazi that his vehicle was shot at about 4km from the base.

He described the attack as an “assassination attempt”.

Mohamed al-Megaryef, the National Assembly chief, urged the demonstrators to withdraw from the bases of the loyal brigades, citing the Rafallah Sehati and February 17 brigades and Shield Libya.

Conflicting claims

The Libyan military chief of staff and defence minister both alluded to “Gaddafi loyalists” as being responsible for the raid on Rafallah Sehati’s compound.

The wounded, however, dismissed such allegations, saying instead that the government and the loyal brigades responded to the storming in a violent manner reminiscent of the days of Gaddafi.

“There is a big difference” in the protests overrunning the bases of Ansar al-Sharia and those of Rafalla Sehati, which is operates under the ministry of defence,” Al Jazeera’s Abdel-Hamid said.

“Ansar al-Sharia operates independently and outside of any kind of jurisdiction.

“Rafalla Sehati said they had not shot at the crowd, but that they tried to disperse the crowd by shooting in the air because they were protecting warehouses [of weapons].”
She described Rafallah Sehati as the “backbone” of the Libyan government in Benghazi after it provided security during recent national elections.

The attacks on the Ansar al-Sharia and other militia compounds across Benghazi mark an extraordinary transformation in a country where the authorities had seemed largely powerless to curb the influence of militia groups armed with heavy weapons.

Nevertheless, the groups have bases elsewhere in eastern Libya, notably around the coastal city of Derna, known across the region as a major recruitment centre for fighters who joined the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies