TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Authorities in Libya thwarted plans for a huge demonstration against militia in the capital Tripoli on Friday, while in Benghazi, scene of mass anti-militia protests last week, supporters of an ousted Islamist group returned to the streets.
Activists had hoped that a planned demonstration in the capital would be as successful as a giant anti-militia protest held in Benghazi last week, but only about 400 protesters turned up on Friday after the country’s mufti and mosque preachers warned people not to attend.
Those that did turn up gathered in Tripoli’s Algeria Square and then marched to the main Martyr’s Square, chanting and clapping, and bemoaning what they described as an attempt to silence them.
“I am one of the people who carried a gun and fought (Muammar) Gaddafi, and now I am back on the square, to say ‘no’ again. No to the leaders of militia, yes to a civil state,” said protester Murad Zikri, who runs a school in Tripoli.
Last week’s Benghazi protests were the biggest outpouring yet of public anger at the militias that still patrol the country a year after the end of the civil war that toppled the late Libyan autocrat.
The protests were spurred in part by a backlash against an attack on the U.S. consulate there that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
But the government, which enthusiastically backed last week’s protest, appears to have decided to withdraw its support for street action. The mufti of Libya, Sadeq al-Gharyani, announced that the protests should be halted.
“I call on the people not to participate in this march so that no blood is spilled,” he said beforehand. “There are some people who want to use these protests to cause violence.” His condemnation was repeated at mosques.
Many of those protesters who did turn up criticized Gharyani for having spoken out against the march, chanting: “Where where where? Where are you mufti?”
Activist Kulud Dribikha, 50, said the authorities had withdrawn support for anti-militia demonstrations after feeling threatened when marchers clashed with powerful groups that back the government at the end of last week’s Benghazi demonstration.
“They wanted a scapegoat for the attack on the U.S. embassy. They didn’t expect (the demonstrators) to reach the groups that they support,” she said.
In Benghazi, the scene of last week’s huge anti-militia protest, a small group of supporters of the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, who had been driven out of the city by demonstrators last week, protested outside a hospital that used to be guarded by the fighters, demanding they be allowed to return.
Men later attacked a nearby police station, where they threw grenades at a gate and trashed cars. Police said no one was hurt and the crowd was dispersed.
Armed men also turned up at a second police station and opened fire. Police officer Muftag al-Zuwai said two people had been wounded there before a group of civilians had arrived and helped chase the gunmen away.
Soldiers on the scene fired in the air to disperse a crowd, and in the melee attackers attempted to set prisoners inside free.
An anti-militia protest planned for Friday in Benghazi was called off. “There really isn’t a mood for a protest in Benghazi,” said Wanis Najim, one of the organizers.
Since the death of Stevens, the government has faced calls to rein in the militias. It has taken a twin-track approach - shutting down Islamist militias operating without permission, but also offering public backing to many of the most powerful armed groups, which have official licenses.
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli and by Ghaith Shennib in Benghazi; Writing by Peter Graff and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Andrew Osborn