Tripoli residents keep up pressure for Libya militias to go

AFP , Friday 22 Nov 2013

A member of the Libyan police special forces holds his weapon as he and another stand atop a vehicle at Martyrs' Square, also known as Green Square, in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Residents of Libya's capital were turning out Friday to press militias remaining in the city to follow others and withdraw, aiming to keep up the momentum following deadly clashes last weekend.

The city council and students union called for a "large demonstration," as authorities pledged to secure the protesters but urged them not to march on sites occupied by militias to avoid confrontations.

Some militias, made up of fighters who helped oust dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, have already pulled out, but there are questions about whether this is in earnest or just for show.

"This is too good to be true," a woman called Asma wrote on Twitter.

And one Western diplomat said: "We'll need a few days to confirm whether these withdrawals are really genuine."

Many of the groups have long rejected government calls to lay down their arms or integrate into the armed forces, triggering the frustration of Libyans who once hailed them as heroes for toppling Kadhafi.

Matters came to a head on November 15, the deadliest day in Tripoli since Kadhafi's ouster.

Gunmen from the Misrata militia opened fire on demonstrators demanding they leave the city, killing a number of them.

In retaliation, members of another militia assaulted villas which the Misrata fighters were occupying , setting off clashes that lasted into the next day.

Overall, 46 people were killed and more than 500 others wounded.

Since Sunday, residents of Tripoli have been holding a general strike, pressing their demands for militias to leave.

The Misrata brigade started pulling out on Monday at the behest of community leaders in their coastal city.

A day later, the government announced plans to remove the militias and eventually integrate them into the security forces, a long-standing objective.

And as the week has progressed, militias including three powerful groups from the western city of Zintan and two Islamist groups have withdrawn.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan attended Thursday's pullout by Zintan's Sawaek Brigade and thanked the group for agreeing to do so.

"The decision to evacuate armed groups from the capital will apply to all factions without exception," he said.

Former rebels who helped topple Kadhafi have since banded into militias carving out their own fiefdoms, each with its own ideology and regional allegiance.

But militiamen continue to occupy several public and privately owned sites in the capital.

Amnesty International urged the authorities to protect the protesters from violence by militias, saying "anything short of that could result in a new tragedy."

The government has called the withdrawals "an important step toward building the state".

Most of the militias have handed over to the authorities sites they occupied in Tripoli, including public buildings, army barracks or farms in the suburbs.

However, it was not immediately clear where these heavily armed militias have relocated.

"They abandon their headquarters, but they could move to other sites," a former militiaman said on condition of anonymity.

Zeidan has insisted the pullout of militiamen was not a mere show and that his government will make sure they do not return.

But a decision adopted in March by the National General Congress -- Libya's parliament and highest political authority -- ordering "illegal armed factions" to evacuate Tripoli had fallen on deaf ears.

Government forces, who are less organised and armed than the militias, were then unable to enforce the decision.

The Misrata and Zintan militias are the most heavily armed groups to have emerged from the uprising, having looted Kadhafi's arsenal, seizing light and heavy weapons, armed vehicles and even tanks.

Meanwhile Libya's restive east, and epicentre of the 2011 uprising, was again the scene of deadly violence on Thursday, the latest in a series of attacks in the lawless region.

A tribal chief was killed when gunmen opened fire on his car in Derna while in second city Benghazi an army officer and his driver escaped unscathed from a shooting, security officials said.

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