An Islamist militia was driven out of the city of Benghazi early yesterday in a surge of protest against the armed groups that control large parts of Libya more than a year after the overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
A spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia said the group had evacuated its bases in Benghazi “to preserve security in the city.”
In a dramatic sign of Libya’s fragility, after sweeping through the base 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.
Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last week in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died, although the group denied involvement.
The invasion of its compound, which met little resistance, appeared to be part of a coordinated sweep of militia bases by police, government troops and activists following a mass public 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 Qaddafi’s security forces who tried to put down the first protests that sparked last year’s uprising.
Hundreds of men waving swords and even a meat cleaver chanting “No more al Qaeda” and “The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain” charged the base, fueled by anger.
“After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists,” demonstrator Hassan Ahmed said.
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.
Protesters had freed four prisoners found inside, he added.
Libya’s government had promised Washington it would find the perpetrators of what appeared to be a well planned attack on the US consulate, which coincided with protests against an anti-Islam video.
The consulate attack and the outrage directed at the US over the video across the Muslim world have raised questions about US President Barack Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring.
The latest events in the cradle of Libya’s revolution appeared at least in part to vindicate his faith in Libya’s nascent democracy.
Continuing to chant anti-Ansar slogans, the crowd, swelling into the thousands, moved on to try to storm a separate compound where the powerful pro-government Rafallah al-Sahati militia was entrusted with guarding a big weapons store and opened fire on the assailants.
Looters carried weapons out of the compound as men chanted: “Say to Ansar al-Sharia: ‘Benghazi will be your inferno!’”
Officials at three hospitals told a reporter they had a total of five dead and more than 60 wounded from the night’s violence. A trail of blood near two abandoned cars led police to six more dead bodies.
“We came as peaceful protesters. When we got there they started shooting at us,” student Sanad al-Barani said.
The withdrawal of Ansar al-Sharia across Benghazi and the huge outpouring of public support for the government suggests an extraordinary transformation in a country where the authorities had seemed largely powerless to curb the influence of militia groups.