BENGHAZI, Libya — Hundreds of protesters stormed the compound of one of Libya's strongest armed Islamic extremist groups Friday, evicting militiamen and setting fire to their building as the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and four other Americans sparked a public backlash against armed groups that run rampant in the country and defy the country's new, post-Moammar Gadhafi leadership.
Armed men at the administrative center for the Ansar al-Shariah militia, suspected to have led the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Benghazi consulate, first fired in the air to disperse the crowd, but eventually withdrew from the site with their weapons and vehicles after it was surrounded by waves of protesters shouting "No to militias."
"I don't want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform," said Omar Mohammed, a university student who took part in the takeover, which protesters said was done in support of the army and police.
No deaths were reported in the incident, which came after tens of thousands marched in Benghazi in a rally against armed militias. A vehicle was also burned at the compound, which was taken over by Libyan security forces after its occupants fled.
For many Libyans, last week's attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi was the last straw with one of the biggest problems Libya has faced since Gadhafi's ouster and death around a year ago — the multiple mini-armies that with their arsenals of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are stronger than the regular armed forces and police.
The militias, a legacy of the rag-tag popular forces that fought Gadhafi's regime, tout themselves as protectors of Libya's revolution, providing security where police cannot. But many say they act like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings. Militias made up of Islamic radicals are notorious for attacks on Muslims who don't abide by their hardline ideology. Officials and witnesses say fighters from Ansar al-Shariah led the attack on the U.S. consulate.
Some 30,000 people filled a broad boulevard as they marched along a lake in central Benghazi on Friday to the gates of the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah.
"No, no, to militias," the crowd chanted, filling a broad boulevard. They carried banners and signs demanding that militias disband and that the government build up police to take their place in keeping security. "Benghazi is in a trap," signs read. "Where is the army, where is the police?"
Other signs mourned the killing of U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens, reading, "The ambassador was Libya's friend" and "Libya lost a friend." Military helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, and police mingled in the crowd, buoyed by the support of the protesters.
Several thousand Ansar al-Shariah supporters lined up in front of their headquarters in the face of the crowd, waving black and white banners. There were some small scuffles, but mostly the two sides mingled and held discussions in the square.
The march was the biggest seen in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and home to 1 million people, since the fall of Gadhafi in August 2011. The unprecedented public backlash comes in part in frustration with the interim government, which has been unable to rein in the armed factions. Many say that officials' attempts to co-opt fighters by paying them have only fueled the growth of militias without bringing them under state control or integrating them into the regular forces.
Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias.
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