Libyan militias that had besieged the foreign ministry in Tripoli fled yesterday after thousands of pro-government protesters converged on the building, as the unrest led the U.S. to put some military units on alert.
Demonstrators chanting slogans supporting Prime Minister Ali Zaidan and denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader engaged in scuffles with militia members before the gunmen left, ending an almost two-week blockade.
“We don’t want a country controlled by militias -- we are a democracy,” Bashir Shamis, a protester, said in an interview outside the ministry building.
Violence in Libya’s capital has raised U.S. concern that American lives may be endangered if the security situation deteriorates. The Pentagon yesterday put quick-reaction forces from the Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, on standby in case they’re needed, according to a U.S. defense official who asked not to be identified.
Earlier, the U.S. and British embassies in the Libyan capital withdrew some workers and issued travel warnings as rival groups prepared for yesterday’s protests. Nationals of the two countries were told that they should only undertake essential travel to Tripoli and some other parts of the country.
Libya’s foreign and justice ministries were blockaded for almost two weeks by militiamen who pledged to stay until personnel purges were implemented under the so-called Isolation Law. The measure requires the dismissal of senior Muammar Qaddafi-era officials. The gunmen sought Zaidan’s ouster.
The May 5 law will force changes to the Cabinet and delay efforts to rebuild the country, Zaidan said in a televised speech on May 8. He said companies from other countries are reluctant to open offices in Libya, while others have left the country, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.
Frustration with the slow pace of change in Libya in the two years since Qaddafi’s removal has already led to strikes and demonstrations as militias refuse to disarm and radical Islamists rise in the oil-producing east. Libya still lacks a new constitution and permanent government to usher in administrative and systemic reforms and begin reconstruction.
The new law will bar from office anyone who worked in managerial positions in the government, civil service, diplomatic corps, the military, banks, universities, the judiciary and oil industry for at least 10 years, regardless of whether they opposed Qaddafi. In the 200-member General National Congress, 30 members may be expelled.
Supporters and opponents of the measure clashed in central Tripoli on April 30 and May 2-4, though no casualties were reported. About 500,000 people may lose their jobs because of the law, according to Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the National Forces Alliance, Libya’s biggest political party, on May 8.
The violence in Tripoli occurred about eight months after U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a Sept. 11 attack by Islamist militants on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
The quick-reaction forces put on standby yesterday by the Pentagon were created in the wake of the incident. The military teams can reach parts of Libya quickly because they’re equipped with their own air transport, according to the U.S. official.
Earlier this week, the U.S., U.K. and France, which led Western military action against Qaddafi in 2011, called on Libyans to refrain from armed protest and violence during the “this critical time in the transition.”