Libyan authorities moved to absorb militias into the security forces, appointing army officers to head Islamist armed groups in an effort to assert central government control.
The new leadership for the Benghazi Islamist militias, Rafallah al-Sahati and the February 17 Brigades, announced yesterday by the military, came at the tail-end of a 48-hour deadline for militias to disarm, the Libyan News Agency reported. The push followed mass weekend protests against the groups in Benghazi -- demonstrations sparked by outrage over the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the city during Sept. 11 protests.
The demonstrations and the decree to disarm reflect a paradox confronting the yet-to-be formed government of Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur. The new administration has said it is committed to dealing with the militias, even though many played a key role in last year’s uprising against Muammar Qaddafi and were called upon by the former transitional government to provide interim security at a time when government forces and police were largely ineffective.
The 48-hour deadline, issued by Mohamed Magarief, the head of the newly elected National Congress, “was meant to show the intent and seriousness of the Libyan government in disarming the armed brigades,” Mohamad Al-Akari, a spokesman for Abushagur, said in interview in Tripoli. “It is quite clear that we cannot disarm everyone in two days, and this deadline should not be seen as a timeframe, but as a demonstration of authority.”
“We are now in a process of democracy,” he said. “The brigades that are voluntarily disarming will receive training and integration into the police and army.”
Mass protests that started on Sept. 21 forced two Islamist militias in Benghazi to disband. One, Ansar al-Shariah, was accused by the government of links to the killing of Stevens.
Rafallah al-Sahati, which was among those targeted by mobs of protesters over the weekend, initially appeared to push back against the marchers and the government warning, arresting more than 100 people it and other groups said were behind the demonstrations against them. Even so, they said in an interview yesterday they’d accept an army-appointed leadership.
The Rafallah brigade defended the arrests, with Ishmael Salabi, who described himself as an assistant commander, saying many were former military under the deposed Qaddafi regime.
“These people have been trying to get power,” he said late yesterday in an interview. “They were in power under Qaddafi and now they have nothing.”
It’s a delicate time for Libya, which is struggling to revive its economy and lure back investors to the country, site of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves.
In a demonstration of the country’s instability, government forces outside the legislative building, near Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel, came under fire today from members of a militia from the city of Misrata. Al-Akari said a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at troops, who returned fire. He did not specify the what triggered the attack in which no casualties were reported.
The militias, many of which were licensed by the interim National Transitional Council and whose loyalties are either Islamist or tribal, have at times challenged the central government’s authority even as they provided security for key installations such as airports and hospitals. The new government, however, cannot sit idle and will require international support, said Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University in the U.K.
“At some point, you have to challenge them,” al-Anani said in a phone interview, referring to the militias. “It’s an issue of legitimacy.
‘‘Any attempt to compromise or give military concessions to the militias will encourage them to challenge the state,’’ he said.
In a speech before the United Nations today, President Barack Obama called the assaults on the consulate and a second U.S. site in Libya ‘‘attacks on America,’’ and vowed the nation would be ‘‘relentless’’ in tracking down the killers.
He also warned that newly-elected leaders in countries such as Libya and Egypt face the same anger and extremism that led to the attacks targeting the U.S.
Libyan officials have pledged to work closely with U.S. investigators, with Magarief, the head of the legislature, saying yesterday in New York the attack ‘‘did not reflect in any way’’ the views of the Libyan people, the state-run LNA said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Brigitte Scheffer in Tripoli at firstname.lastname@example.org; Christopher Stephen in Benghazi at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org