Libyan Islamist militias announced a mass round-up of opponents they accused of instigating weekend violence as one of their commanders said they’d accept the appointment of an army officer to run the group.
The Rafallah al-Sahati militia, an Islamist group based in Benghazi that occupied one of three militia bases stormed by protesters on Sept. 21-22, said today that 113 people had been held for involvement in the attack on their base.
“Most of them are former military people,” Ishmael Salabi, who described himself as an assistant commander, said of the detainees during an interview today. “These people have been trying to get power. They were in power under Qaddafi and now they have nothing.” Salabi, who said he was shot twice in the leg during the weekend’s mass protests, wore a long white silk robe marked with red spots on the thigh where blood had leaked. Some of those held had been freed, he said.
The arrests signal a counter-push by the Islamist groups, some of which have been blamed for the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues during a Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. While the weekend’s protests caused the flight of two Islamist militias, others fought with demonstrators, leaving at least four people dead.
Yesterday, the Libyan prime minister-elect’s spokesman said army officers would bring the groups under central control.
“Our goal is to bring the militias under full control of the government and the national army,” Ahmed Shalabi, a spokesman for Mustafa Abushagur, said by phone. “We will start with Benghazi by sending national army officers to all known militia places and then continue throughout the country.”
Salabi said his militia, which like several Libyan armed groups has been authorized to carry arms, would accept orders from army commanders. “We accept orders” from the army’s chief of staff, Salabi said.
The militia detentions, along with popular protests and efforts by Abushagur to rein-in the armed groups, underscore the fragile state of Libyan politics. Abushagur, named premier by the newly-elected parliament this month, has yet to appoint a Cabinet, while the old administration under Prime Minister Abdurahim El Keib is still overseeing much of the day-to-day business of government.
“This is part of the conflict between the remnants of the old regime and the new regime, which is on the way in,” Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University in the U.K. said by phone. “The new government is still struggling to control the state both geographically and politically.
‘‘There is sense of freedom among different political factions -- not only in Libya, but in the Arab world -- where they think they can do anything, at any time, without being under the rule of law,’’ he said.
Mohammed Bojenah, one of the organizers of the weekend’s anti-Islamist Save Benghazi protests, called for renewed demonstrations today. A small protest took place later, with participants carrying pictures of the dead.
Abushagur said on Sept. 20 that eight Libyan nationals had been arrested in connection with the killing of the four Americans and that Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militia, was one of the groups thought to be involved. Following the protests, the group and another militia, the Abu Selim brigade, said they had disbanded and vacated their bases in Derna, east of Benghazi.
Authorities deployed troops to the vacated bases, with military police units sent into three sites, including one that had been the home of Ansar al-Shariah, said General Hamad Belkkhair, the commander of the army garrison in Benghazi.
Tensions rose after the military issued a decree giving unlicensed militias, or those involved in criminal activity, 48 hours to disband. Many of the groups, most of which either have Islamist links or tribal or regional ties, played a key role in last year’s uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.