TRIPOLI, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Libya’s army on Sunday ordered rogue armed groups in and around the capital to leave state and military premises in Tripoli or be ejected by force, apparently seeking to capitalise on the withdrawal of militias from Benghazi and Derna.
The two main Islamist militias in Derna, a town in eastern Libya known as an Islamist stronghold, said on Saturday that they were disbanding in the town, a day after one of them, Ansar al-Sharia, was driven out of Libya’s second city, Benghazi.
The many militias, most of them ex-rebels, that control Libya’s streets more than a year after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled are the clearest sign of the weakness of a central government that has been unable to control them and, worse, relies on many of them to provide security.
However, the killing of four Americans including the ambassador in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 seems to have given the nascent democratic government a cue to rally support and channel public frustration with the armed groups.
Some U.S. officials have accused the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia of involvement in the attack, a charge it denies.
Ansar al-Sharia, opposed to democracy, is one of the groups that have operated outside the nominal Defence Ministry umbrella that covers ex-rebels approved - and needed - by the government.
“The army chief Yussef al-Mangoush and (national assembly leader) Mohammed Magarief have ordered all illegitimate militias should be removed from compounds and hand over their weapons to the national army,” said Adel Othman al-Barasi, a spokesman for the Defence Ministry.
“A committee made up by the military police has been formed to take over the compounds and the weapons and hand these over to the army.”
He said the army had already evicted a militia from a military complex on the highway leading to Tripoli airport on Sunday, and that all such handovers had been done “peacefully”.
The state news agency LANA said the army had given rogue militias 48 hours to vacate military or state properties, threatening force if they did not comply, though Barasi said they should start moving out “immediately”.
Similar edicts have come and gone in the past, with little or no effect on the militias, but the growing frustration of the public may be tipping the balance at street level.
“BACK TO NORMAL LIVES”
“The civil society groups came to our camps, and the youth demonstrators asked us to evacuate the place and disband,” Slim Derby, leader of the Abu Slim Martyrs brigade, which is based in Derna, told Reuters by telephone.
“So we disbanded in accordance with their request, because our responsibility is the security of the city. Our members have their own normal lives, so everyone will go back to their normal lives and their regular jobs.”
Ansar al-Sharia made a similar announcement in Derna after protesters forced its Benghazi brigade out of its bases in that city on Friday following a mass demonstration in support of democracy and against Islamist militias.
Those invasions met little resistance and appeared to be part of a sweep of militia bases by police, army and activists.
Siraj Shennib, a 29-year-old linguistics professor, said protesters had been maintaining a vigil against the militias in Derna for 10 days, and the protests became much larger after a car-jacking three days ago.
“The people started coming because it has reached the limit. They are saying: we’ve had enough,” he said. “It was a very peaceful operation. We are happy and we appreciate the effort the militias have done to save people from conflict.”
Libyan political scientist Ahmad al-Atrash told Reuters: “People in Benghazi and all over Libya want to get these militias under control ... The overwhelming feeling is against any element that keeps the situation unstable.”
Derna, which overlooks the Mediterranean, is known across the region as a major recruitment centre for fighters who joined the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Unlike most of the Libyan militias, which were formed for last year’s civil war, the Derna groups, especially the Abu Slim Martyrs, are veteran guerrilla fighters with many years of history fighting Gaddafi in the hills of eastern Libya.
The group is named after the Tripoli prison where Gaddafi’s jailers killed around 1,200 prisoners in 1996.
Unable to handle security without the help of the militias, some of which still have heavy weapons commandeered from Gaddafi’s army, the government has until now opted to manage the problem by co-opting those that espouse democracy.
But its aim is gradually to increase its control and integrate the ex-rebels into regular security forces.
The head of Libya’s national congress, Mohammed Magarief, met government and security officials in Benghazi late on Saturday and then announced the formation of a “security operations room”.
He said this would bring together the army and interior ministry forces with Defence Ministry brigades made up of former rebels and work to secure Benghazi.
He announced plans to dissolve militias not under government control, and said the government wanted the army to take control of the pro-government militias’ compounds as a step towards integrating them into regular forces.
A doctor in a hospital where Ansar al-Sharia had provided security for the past six weeks said it had prevented anarchy.
“I don’t know about their religion or ideology, but they solved problems,” said Abdulmonin Salim. “I don’t care if they come from another planet. I want a secure hospital.”
Other problems associated with the militias were dramatically illustrated on Friday when the protesters who had pushed Ansar al-Sharia out of its bases moved on to another compound believing that it, too, harboured an Islamist militia.
It turned out to be the base of the powerful pro-government Rafallah al-Sahati militia, which opened fire in an attempt to protect a large weapons store that it had been asked to guard.
Eleven people were killed and more than 60 injured before the militia pulled back and left the arsenal to be looted.
Nasser Abdelhaaq, a Rafallah al-Sahati commander, suggested the crowd had been manipulated to turn on Rafallah al-Sahati, an officially approved militia that also has Islamist leanings.
Six of the dead were bodyguards of a colonel in the regular Libyan army who went missing on Friday, suggesting a kidnapping that may have been the work of a militia group.