By Peter Graff and Suleiman Al-Khalidi SWISSINFO.CH
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – An Islamist militia was driven out of the city of Benghazi early on Saturday in a surge of anger against the armed groups that control large parts of Libya more than a year after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, which some U.S. and Libya officials blame for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed, said it had evacuated its bases “to preserve security in the city”.
In a dramatic sign of Libya’s fragility, after sweeping through Ansar’s bases the crowd went on to attack a pro-government militia, believing them to be Islamists, triggering an armed response in which at least 11 people were killed and more than 60 wounded.
The invasion of Ansar al-Sharia’s compounds, which met little resistance, appeared to be part of a sweep of militia bases by police, troops and activists following a large demonstration against militia units in Benghazi on Friday.
Demonstrators pulled down militia flags and set a vehicle on fire inside what was once the base of Gaddafi’s security forces.
Hundreds of men waving swords and even a meat cleaver chanted “Libya, Libya”, “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,” demonstrator Hassan Ahmed said. “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 Ansar fighters had initially confronted the protesters and opened fire. Two protesters were shot in the leg, he said.
“After that they got into their trucks and drove away,” he said. Protesters had freed four prisoners found inside.
Libya’s government had promised Washington it would find the perpetrators of what appeared to be a well planned attack on the U.S. consulate, which coincided with protests against an anti-Islam video and the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
PRESSURE ON OBAMA
The attack and the outrage directed at the United States over the video across the Muslim world raised questions about President Barack Obama’s handling of the so-called Arab Spring.
Although Ansar al-Sharia denies any role in the consulate attack, the latest events in the cradle of Libya’s revolution appeared at least in part to vindicate Obama’s faith in Libya’s nascent democracy.
“The killing of the ambassador, and a preceding set of serious security incidents, are a wake-up call to the new government to actually start to improve security,” said Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya.
“And now they’ve got backing from the street in Benghazi to do just that.”