Libya Crackdown Makes Benghazi Ghost Town as Police Fight Gunmen
As night fell in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, masked men pulled a senior officer from his car at a traffic light.
Captain Abdelsalam al-Mahdawi remains unaccounted for after being abducted on Jan. 2. He was poised to identify suspects in another attack: the murder of Benghazi police chief Faraj el- Drissi in his house in November. Two months earlier, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when an armed crowd stormed the U.S. mission in the city.
Benghazi was singled out as the focus of efforts to restore security by Interior Minister Ashour Shuwail when he took office last month. The government has been struggling to rein in militias and armed groups that have hampered rebuilding efforts since Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster and death in 2011. While overall stabilization is key to increasing output in the home of Africa’s largest proven crude reserves, Benghazi takes on special importance as the birthplace of Libya’s uprising and the city where Islamists have also secured a solid foothold.
“Failure to get this right now will not allow Libya to reach its potential, and will see it as an unstable oil- producing nation, rich in cash but dominated by armed gangs,” Duncan Bullivant, chief executive officer of Henderson Risk Ltd., a U.K.-based security analyst, said in a telephone interview.
Libya, where companies including ConocoPhillips (COP) and Eni SpA (ENI) pump crude, has restored production to more than 1.5 million barrels a day, close to pre-war levels. It aims to lift that to 1.6 million barrels by February and 2 million within two years, Oil Minister Abdulbari al-Arusi said last month. The country has also announced plans to build more refineries. Much of the Libya’s reserves are located in the east of the country.
“Delays in normalizing the security situation” are among the key risks to an economy that’s recovering rapidly after oil output plunged during the uprising, the International Monetary Fund said in a May report.
Shuwail is a native of Benghazi and was director of traffic police under Qaddafi before switching to support the rebels in the first days of the revolution that ended in October 2011. He was cleared by a commission tasked with purging Qaddafi-era officials from office.
An incident less than a week into his tenure showed the scale of the challenge.
Security forces in jeeps and pickup trucks flashing hazard lights raced to the walled police headquarters in the early hours of Dec. 16, joining dozens of police, army, and pro- government militia, who formed a circle around the building. They were seeking to stop gunmen from freeing two men held on suspicion of killing El-Drissi.
A military police officer said at the scene that he had been woken up by his commander and told to round-up his men because trouble was expected. Nearly two hours later, four police officers were dead after militants attempted to storm the building, which has been under special guard ever since.
The violence has turned the city into a virtual ghost-town most nights, in contrast to other Libyan cities such as Misrata which are bustling.
“People are staying off the streets,” for fear of getting caught up in the crossfire, aviation student Mohammed el-Gadri said.
Among the groups whose influence Shuwail has pledged to combat are Islamists such as Ansar al-Shariah, which the U.S. says is linked to Al-Qaeda and played a role in the killing of Stevens, a charge it denies.
Islamist groups have been present in eastern Libya since the 1990s when they took part in a failed uprising against Qaddafi. They have denounced the holding of elections and want to establish an Islamic state.
The government has blamed much of the violence on them, including a bombing outside the headquarters of the public prosecutor in Benghazi on New Year’s Eve, the third attack on the building in 12 months, and the killings of about 20 prominent security officials in the city last year.
Another problem for Shuwail is the movement backing independence for Cyrenaica, the eastern region of which Benghazi is capital. Last year, local militias blocked the coastal highway linking the city to Tripoli. Some tribal leaders say greater autonomy is key to the region’s survival because the central government is neglecting them as Qaddafi did.
For many in Benghazi, patience is wearing thin. Since the killing of Stevens, the Save Benghazi protest group has staged several rallies to keep up pressure on militias to disarm and on the government to make them do so.
Speaking after the standoff at Benghazi police headquarters, Mohamed Magarief, speaker of the country’s new parliament, promised action.
“This city has suffered enough oppression, tyranny, injustice, deprivation, marginalization and neglect over the last four years,’ he said.
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