BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Pro-government demonstrators stormed the headquarters of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group in Benghazi on Friday and evicted fighters from the site in a sweep of militia bases in the Libyan city, Reuters witnesses said.
Militia fighters made a stand at another heavily fortified compound across the eastern city, firing on demonstrators with heavy machine guns and wounding several people, protesters said.
Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died. It denies involvement.
Friday’s action against the group appeared to be part of a coordinated sweep of militia headquarters buildings by police, government troops and activists following a mass public demonstration against militia units earlier in the day.
Chanting “Libya, Libya,” hundreds of demonstrators entered, pulling down militia flags and torching a vehicle inside the compound, Ansar al-Sharia’s main base in Benghazi - once the base of forces of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The crowd waved swords and even a meat cleaver, crying “No more al Qaeda!” and “The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!”
“After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists,” said demonstrator Hassan Ahmed. “They did not give allegiance to the army. So the people broke in and they fled.”
“This place is like the Bastille. This is where Gaddafi controlled Libya from, and then Ansar al-Sharia took it over. This is a turning point for the people of Benghazi.”
Adusalam al-Tarhouni, a government worker who arrived with the first wave of protesters, said several pickup trucks with the group’s fighters had initially confronted the protesters and opened fire. Two protesters were shot in the leg, he said.
“After that (the fighters) got into their trucks and drove away,” he said. “When we got in, we found four prisoners in the compound and set them free.”
The demonstrators also took over a compound belonging to the Abu Slim brigade, another independent militia, and another compound belonging to Ansar al-Sharia.
As the wave moved from location to location, the crowd swelled until it had reached thousands. Hundreds of vehicles backed up a highway as youths from across Benghazi converged on the city’s western Hawari district to raid the headquarters of another militia. Gunfire could be heard from the compound.
“We came as peaceful protesters. When we got there, they started shooting at us,” student Sanad al-Barani said. “Five people were wounded beside me. They used 14.5 caliber machine guns.”
An ambulance driver said around seven people had been wounded.
Thousands of Libyans had earlier marched in Benghazi in support of democracy and against the Islamist militias that the United States blames for the assault on its consulate. Hundreds of Ansar al-Sharia supporters held their own protest.
The “Rescue Benghazi day” demonstration called for the government to disband armed groups that have refused to give up their weapons since the NATO-backed revolution last year.
“It’s obvious that this protest is against the militias. All of them should join the army or security forces as individuals, not as groups,” medical student Ahmed Sanallah, 27, said. “Without that, there will be no prosperity and no success for the new Libya.”
‘LIBYA LOST A FRIEND’
Although the main demands of the marchers did not mention the attack on the U.S. consulate, it seems to have provided a strong impetus for the authorities to rally support behind the country’s weak government.
U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens was well liked, and many Libyans condemned the attack on the consulate despite being angered by the anti-Islamic California-made film that triggered it. Some protesters’ placards read: “We demand justice for Stevens” and “Libya lost a friend.” Others had mixed views.
“I am out today to defend Benghazi. Killing the ambassador is a completely separate thing,” said 26-year-old Amjad Mohammed Hassan, a network engineer. “I don’t give a damn about the killing of the ambassador because the Americans offended the Prophet. I am just here for Benghazi.”
Benghazi, 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tripoli across largely empty desert, is controlled by various armed groups, including some comprised of Islamists who openly proclaim their hostility to democratic government and the West.
Some are identified by local people as being among those who were at the consulate protest last week. U.S. officials have described the violence as a “terrorist attack.”
Abu Al-Qaa, a demonstrator at the Ansar al-Sharia counter-demonstration on Friday, said Stevens had been “preparing for the entry of American troops into Libya.”
“The will of the Prophet was to expel infidels from Muslim lands so that Muslims prevail. Terrorizing your enemy is one of Islam’s tenets,” he said.
He said he had fought American troops in Iraq where he was arrested, sent back to Gaddafi’s Libya and jailed for three years. One banner at the Ansar al-Sharia demonstration read: “Day to rescue Benghazi or day to rescue America?”
Additional reporting by Omar Al-Mosmary and Ali Shuaib; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Andrew Roche and Will Dunham