Monday, September 24, 2012

Occupied Libya Appoints Rebel Officers to Rein in Militias

September 24, 2012, 7:32 p.m. ET

Occupied Libya Appoints Army Officers to Head Militias

Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya—Libya's military command on Monday appointed a pair of army officers to head two powerful Islamist militias in the country's east, part of the government's push to rein in armed factions.

The move reflects pressure on the government to control or disband the country's militias, many of which it had relied upon for securing Libya in the turmoil following last year's ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Col. Ali al-Sheikhi, spokesman for Libya's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told news agency LANA that the chiefs of the Rafallah Sahati Brigade and the Feb. 17 Brigade, two groups that authorities had allowed to manage security in the eastern city of Benghazi, would be replaced with army commanders.

Anger at the militias boiled over following the killing of the top American diplomat in Libya and three U.S. mission staffers in an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Sept. 11. The attack followed an angry protest against an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. which has riled many in the Muslim world.

Members of the radical Islamist Ansar al-Shariah militia are suspected of being behind the attack.

In New York Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libya's President Mohammed el-Megaref and thanked him for the support offered by his government in the aftermath of the attack and praised the Libyan people for overthrowing Gadhafi.

"Courage has been the defining characteristic of the Libyan people over these last two years," she said. Mr. El-Megaref called the consulate attack "a very painful, huge tragedy, not only for the American people and the families of the victims, but also for the Libyan people."

He noted that thousands of Libyans had marched in the streets to protest the attack and said those demonstrations "embodied the conscience of the Libyan people."

"What happened on (the) 11th of September toward these U.S. citizens does not express in any way the conscience of the Libyan people, their aspirations, their hopes or their sentiments toward the American people," he said.

Meantime, President Barack Obama said "there's no doubt" that the assault of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi "wasn't just a mob action," but a sign of extremism in nations lacking stability. His words about the Libya killings were his most specific since the White House called it a "terrorist attack" last week.

"What's been interesting, just this past week, there were these massive protests against these extremists militias that are suspected, maybe, of having been involved in this attack," Obama said during the taping of an interview on ABC's talk show program "The View."

Many of Libya's militias were formed in the eight-month war against Gadhafi, but more groups sprang up after the end of fighting in October. With the country trying to rebuild after 42 years of Gadhafi rule, the groups paid little attention to successive interim leaders. They were accused of bullying citizens, operating independent prisons and holding summary trials for Gadhafi loyalists.

Recently, Islamist-led militias have also attacked shrines, such as tombs associated with religious figures they considered to be counter to their strict view of Islam.

On Friday, thousands of protesters marched against the militias in Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising against Gadhafi and stormed two of their compounds. Militiamen at the Sahati Brigade's compound fired at the protesters, killing nearly a dozen.

In an attempt to deflect the anger, Libya's president ordered all militias to dissolve or to come under a joint operations command to coordinate between militia brigades and the army. The military had already asked all armed groups using captured Gadhafi-era barracks to evacuate and hand them over. Security forces have raided a number of sites used by militias in the capital Tripoli.

The moves surprised some critics who doubted the government was strong enough to deal with the militias, particularly the powerful Islamist ones.

But many Libyans still feel the government hasn't done enough.

In Benghazi, around 200 people rallied against the militias Monday, decrying the government decision to retain some of the armed groups even if they were under military command. The protest demanded that all militias be disbanded and its members integrated in the security agencies as individuals.

The protesters also demanded an independent investigation into the killing of protesters, saying the government bears responsibility for the actions of a militia upon which it had relied for security.

"The blood of the martyrs won't be shed in vain," the protesters chanted. They called for the chief of staff, defense and interior ministers to be sacked.

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