Libya militias: Benghazi turns against armed Islamist groups

Libyans Rise Against Militias

Libyans Rise Against Militias

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The Slatest
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Sept. 22 2012 12:49 PM

At Least 11 Killed as Libyan Protesters Attack Militia Bases in Benghazi

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Libyan protesters hold slogans during a demonstration against armed militia in Tripoli

Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

The Libyans’ rise against militia turned deadly Saturday morning with at least 11 people killed and more than 60 wounded, according to Reuters. The deaths were the result of what was a largely unexpected sweep on heavily armed, pro-government militia bases Saturday morning after protesters successfully pushed an Islamist militia out of Benghazi that many blame for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate there.

Why, yes, this is all rather confusing and still developing. So let’s take it one step at a time. First, on Friday, thousands of protesters marched on the streets of Benghazi in a planned protest against militias. Hundreds then broke off from the protest to storm the compound of the Islamist Ansar al-Shariah militia, which is suspected of leading the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate, reports the Wall Street Journal. Many quickly interpreted the move as an optimistic sign that Libyans have had enough of what the Associated Press describes as the “mini armies” that have cropped up since the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.  But it seems the militias were expecting this sweep because they gave up their headquarters without much of a fight and didn’t leave weapons behind.

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Protesters shouting “No, no to militias” had moved on to their fourth militia building, when suddenly they met more resistance and shooting erupted, reports McClatchy. In an unexpected move, the crowd that swept on the Islamist militia  attacked the base of a pro-government militia, apparently believing that it was Islamist as well, according to Reuters. “We came as peaceful protesters. When we got there they started shooting at us,” one student said.

The Washington Post details that a firefight between protesters and militias began when they stormed the base of Rafallah al-Sahati, “an influential Benghazi militia with conservative Islamist leanings” that until recently controlled the local airport.

While Libyans appeared to be expressing their rejection of militias in general, the government seemed to make it clear there could be a security vacuum without them with officials insisting Saturday that protesters must respect “legitimate militias,” points out the AP.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.