BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan police in Benghazi have mutinied and refuse to serve under the man appointed by the government to take over security following last week’s storming of the U.S. consulate in which the ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
With no one clearly in charge in Libya’s second city and major oil port, the officer named by the government in Tripoli to replace both Benghazi’s police chief and the deputy interior minister responsible for the eastern region told Reuters that he had asked for the army to be sent in if he could not start work.
But as the appointee, Salah Doghman, spoke late on Tuesday, police threatened to walk out en masse if the leadership switch was forced through and accused central government in the capital of making local officials scapegoats for its own failures.
Global attention has been focused on security in Benghazi since September 11, when a residential villa being used by the U.S. mission was stormed after a violent protest about a film that has provoked anger among Muslims worldwide. U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens died of smoke inhalation while trapped alone inside the villa, and three other Americans were killed in the attack and during a rescue attempt that followed.
The incident highlighted the lack of central security powers in Libya and a proliferation of militias, a year after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in a revolt backed by the Western powers.
Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister based in the east of the country, and Hussein bu Ahmeida, the chief of police for Benghazi, were both fired by the interior ministry in the wake of the attack, and Doghman was named to take up both of their positions. But neither Sharif nor Ahmeida has left his post and Doghman said he was unable to take up either job.
“These are very dangerous circumstances,” Doghman told Reuters in what are believed to be his first public comments since being named to the two security positions four days ago.
“This is a mess,” he said during an interview at his apartment in a rundown district of the city where the 2011 uprising was born among a population Gaddafi had long scorned.
“When you go to police headquarters, you will find there are no police,” Doghman said. “The people in charge are not at their desks. They have refused to let me take up my job.
“I have a paper, I have a statement from the minister himself, saying I should take these two jobs. If I do not take up these two jobs, people will not respect the government.
“I phoned the office of the interior minister. I told them, ‘You must take action, even use the army if you have to, to force the police to let me take up this job’.”
At a news conference held inside the Benghazi Interior Ministry headquarters across town, however, a spokesman for a union of senior police officers loyal to the old police chief said colleagues from across eastern Libya had met and threatened to resign en masse if the dismissals were upheld.
“We see the decision taken by the minister of the interior as an attempt to find a scapegoat for the minister’s own failure to address the security issue and to cover up the ineptitude of his administration,” said the spokesman, Izzedin al-Sazzani.
Benghazi, 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tripoli across largely empty desert, is in the grip of a variety of armed groups, including some made up of Islamist militants who openly proclaim their hostility to democratic government and the West.
Some of these have been 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”.
The absence of a police chief in Benghazi is certain to add to U.S. exasperation after what seem to have been fatal security failures on the part of both the State Department and the Libyan authorities obliged by treaty to protect foreign diplomats.
Amid security chaos in Benghazi, home to about one in 10 of Libya’s six million people, U.S. investigators have as yet been unable to visit the burnt-out mission. A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday that information so far suggested that the assault was not planned for the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States but was “opportunistic” and “evolved” over several hours out of the events in the area.
The Libyan government says it intends to track down the perpetrators and has announced that it has made some arrests, but it has not named any suspects nor given a full explanation of who it believes was behind the attack.
Doghman, who described himself as a 27-year veteran of the Libyan police, said he had not been briefed on the investigation because he could not take up his new job. But he blamed the attack on militia which were able to flourish because the police force had not been properly managed by his predecessors.
“The militias have taken power because of the lack of police,” he said. “I will increase and improve the police force, and then we can take power back from the militias step by step.
“America, Libya, the world, should know that in this situation they should have the right person in place. Libyans should know that there is firm leadership. If there had been wise leadership, this attack could not have happened.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald