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Libyan militias succumb to popular pressure
After rally by more than 30,000 Libyans, some militias have disbanded; government issues ultimatum to remaining groups
By Essam Mohamed
BENGHAZI, Libya – Libya will dissolve all militias and armed groups that operate outside state authority, national assembly chief Mohamed Magarief announced late September 22 in Benghazi.
Libyan authorities also set a 48-hour deadline for armed groups to evacuate strategic property in Tripoli.
"The objective is to bring the militia under full control of the government," government spokesman Ahmed Shalabi told Libya Herald on Sunday. "We want to see them inside the law, not outside of the law."
"We had some tough talking with the brigades, but they understand, as we all do, that the situation in Libya is now different," Shalabi added. "We have to recognise what the people want and listen to their demands."
The decision to establish complete authority over the militias was reached Saturday night, following meetings between Magarief, Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, Army Chief of Staff Yussef al-Mangoush, intelligence services head Salem al-Hassi, national assembly members, local council heads and leaders of the Benghazi brigades.
Two militias in the Islamist stronghold of Derna have already decided to disband. In a Facebook post on Sunday, the "Martyrs of Abu Slim Brigade" announced the group's dissolution, saying that the move was in accordance with the "public will."
Ansar al-Sharia of Derna also decided to quit public sites and surrender arms, the brigade said. "We can't kill our brothers and our cousins," Abu Slim fighter Abu al-Shalali, 27, told the BBC.
Libya's armed forces on Sunday began enforcing the crackdown by dislodging a group of armed fighters from a military complex near Tripoli International Airport. Army Commander Yussef al-Mangush said on his Facebook page that militia members had been arrested.
The new government strategy took shape after some 30,000 citizens held a Benghazi rally Friday in al-Kish square, located near the command centres of several paramilitary brigades.
"We want to integrate all these militias under the national army, to build strong police and army forces, and give legitimacy to civil society organisations," demonstrator Youssef Ali, a university student, told Magharebia.
The protesters first attacked a group based in a security building in central Benghazi before turning their wrath on the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Salafist militia suspected of involvement in the September 11 US consulate attack in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
To shouts of "The martyrs' blood was not shed in vain", demonstrators pillaged and torched the compound. Protestors also raided the headquarters of the "Raf Allah al-Sahati" militia. Regular armed forces retook control of the two bases on Saturday.
Parallel with the Benghazi protest on Friday, a massive demonstration was staged at al-Shuhada Square in Tripoli. Demonstrators carried banners to send a message that Benghazi was not alone.
The weekend violence left at least 11 people dead, including six members of the National Army found executed in the Hawari district outside Benghazi. The men, who belonged to the Army's First Infantry Battalion, were discovered with their hands tied and bullets to the head.
National Congress head Magarief initially welcomed the Benghazi protest but later urged the demonstrators to withdraw from the bases of loyal brigades.
The warning highlighted the dilemma facing the government a year after the toppling of the Moamer Kadhafi regime, AFP noted. Libya's fledgling security forces have been dependent on former rebels, even though such paramilitary groups challenged the authority of the central government.
"If this drive to purge Tripoli of militias proves to be effective and successful, and in view of the events in Benghazi… where unarmed civilian demonstrators virtually embarrassed militias into vacating their bases, this could prove to be the turning point in Libya's efforts to move forward," Sami Zapta editorialised in the Libya Herald.
After the outpouring of Libyan citizens' regret over the Benghazi consulate attack, the government's move to dismantle the militias would also honour the memory of the slain US ambassador, Zapta added.