Libya gave militias 48 hours to withdraw from government installations occupied after last year’s uprising in and around the capital, as officials launched a new push to secure the violence-plagued nation.
The ultimatum issued by the military said authorities would use force if needed, the state-run Libyan news agency LNA reported. The Ansar al-Shariah brigade, linked by authorities to an attack on the U.S. consulate, and the Abu Selim brigade in the city of Derna announced they would disband “in response to the demands of protesters calling for the dissolution of armed groups,” according to the agency.
The decree follows mass weekend protests against militias in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, and comes as the authorities struggle to improve security after last year’s ouster and killing of long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi. A joint operations room was formed to coordinate the army and branches of the security forces operating patrols and check points around the city, LNA reported today.
“Our goal is to bring the militias under full control of the government and the national army,” Ahmed Shalabi, a spokesman for Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur, said by phone today. “We will start with Benghazi by sending national army officers to all known militia places and then continue throughout the country.”
In a sign of a potential push-back, Soraya al-Thawar al-Libieen, an umbrella group whose name in Arabic loosely translates as “Battalion of Libyan Revolutionaries,” said it had “arrested” 33 military officers on charges of inciting protests against the groups in Benghazi, Egypt’s Middle East News Agency said, citing a statement by the group.
Tensions in Benghazi have risen since the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate and a second site that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other people dead. Abushagur said Sept. 20 that eight Libyan nationals had been arrested in connection with the assault and Ansar al-Shariah was one of the groups thought to be involved.
Authorities began to deploy troops in the vacated bases, with military police units sent into three sites used as militia bases, including one that had been the home of Ansar al-Shariah, General Hamad Belkkhair, the commander of the army garrison in Benghazi, said in an interview. Belhkair declined to comment about the reported capture of the military officers.
Along with the two militias driven from their bases, the military said a third group based near Tripoli’s international airport had also been pushed out and troops had taken control of the compound.
The base, located in a complex belonging to the Defense Ministry, was raided by troops, according to a post on the Facebook page of the armed forces Commander-in-Chief Youssif al-Mangoush. The group was not identified.
The weekend protests left a total of 11 dead, Sabah A. Gumati, a medical examiner in Benghazi, said in an interview in the city. The deaths occured as unarmed protesters sought to drive Ansar al-Shariah from its base. The dead included six bodies discovered in a field yesterday near one of the vacated bases. Each of them had been shot in the head, she said. More than 70 were injured in the clashes, LNA said, citing health officials.
Many of the militias, which played a key role in the 2011 uprising, took over military bases from the former regime. While authorities have since been able to regain control of government installations such as Tripoli’s airport, other facilities including some hospitals are guarded by militias.
The retreat of the armed groups from Benghazi may clear the way for the arrival of a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, now in Tripoli, to investigate the killing of Stevens and the three other Americans in Benghazi.