Militias challenge Libyan government's order to disband
CAIRO - The Libyan government said late Saturday that all of Libya's militias would be brought under government control or forced to disband within 48 hours, but was quickly challenged.
"We are disbanding all armed groups that do not fall under the authority of the government," said Mohammed Magarief, president of the General National Congress. "We are also banning the use of violence and carrying of weapons in public places. It is also illegal to set up checkpoints."
Within hours, however, the government faced its first challenge from some of its insubordinate security forces and the extrajudicial militias.
On Saturday afternoon Libya's Tripoli Rixos hotel was stormed by members of the Supreme Security Council - an amalgamation of security forces under the jurisdiction of the interior ministry - who threatened to blow it up. The Rixos Hotel is a de facto headquarters for the Libyan government.
The SSC men were angered by a lack of support from the Defense Ministry after fierce between the SSC and alleged Moammar Gadhafi loyalists in the town of Brak in central Libya.
Clashes between the two groups started Wednesday after SSC members tried to arrest a number of Gadhafi sympathizers who had been celebrating Gadhafi's "Fateh Revolution Day" on Sept. 1.
Many of the SSC members are Salafists and the group is said to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the arrest attempts, they shot dead the sister of a sympathizer as they tried to arrest her brother at their family home. During the fighting, six people, mostly SSC members, were killed. There was a lull in the fighting on Thursday but on Friday deadlier clashes broke out again with the death of 16 SSC members and the wounding of 50.
During the week preceding the bloody confrontations, tensions had been building in the town after the alleged mistreatment of locals by the SSC.
After running low on ammunition, the SSC men withdrew from Brak and returned to Tripoli with the bodies of their comrades. They then stormed the Rixos Hotel after claiming that Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al and Defense Minister Osama Juwaily had refused to provide them with weapons, more ammunition and ambulances despite promises made by the defense ministry.
The two men had also ignored their repeated requests for a meeting.
The incident ended without casualties.
However, at least 14 people were killed and more than 70 wounded following the storming of several militia bases in Benghazi by thousands of unarmed, angry Libyans on Friday.
The attack on the militia bases followed a "Save Benghazi" mass demonstration in the eastern city that was held to protest the deteriorating security situation in the city, where there has been a spate of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations over the past few months.
Libyans have been angered by what they see as government complacency and even collusion in a number of milita attacks, including the targeting of Sufi shrines and mosques in several Libyan cities. However, the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans allegedly by Islamists from the Ansar Al-Sharia Militia, during the storming of the U.S. Consulate several weeks ago was a trigger.
The Libyan government has been either unwilling or unable to control the hundreds of armed militias that still control large areas of the country.
Unarmed, thousands of protesters set the headquarters of Ansar Al Sharia ablaze, forcing the gunmen to flee. They then moved on to several other militia bases that were not connected with the Islamists and forced the gunmen there to also flee. The reprisals began early the next morning when the bodies of five soldiers from the defense ministry were found on the outskirts of Benghazi. They had been shot in the head and their hands were tied behind their backs. A sixth member remains in critical condition in hospital.
The killing of the five soldiers, who were not related to any militia or Salafist group, was thought to have been carried out by militia members in revenge for what they said was the involvement of the army and police members in helping to orchestrate Friday's protests that targeted them.
Frykberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.