Monday, November 25, 2013

Counter-Revolutionaries Battle Each Other in Eastern Libya

November 25, 2013

Rebels Clash in Benghazi

A militia in Benghazi, Libya, blamed by the western media for the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens fled its headquarters on Monday after an hourslong gun battle with a local military unit, a potential turning point in a continuing struggle between Islamists and their foes for control of the city.

At least nine people were killed and more than 50 were wounded, health officials said, as the battle flared out across Benghazi, beginning before dawn. Stores and schools were closed. The local authorities advised residents to stay in their homes and avoid the streets. And by late afternoon, the militia, Ansar al-Shariah, appeared to have disappeared underground. Photographs circulated over the Internet that appeared to show its headquarters emptied and smoking, with the wreckage of a burned-out car sitting outside.

The melee followed the deaths of more than 40 people in a similar battle in Tripoli this month, when militiamen from the coastal city of Misurata opened fire on civilians protesting their continued presence in the city. Both battles come during the run-up to another attempt to elect a constitutional assembly that might relieve the expiring transitional assembly and lay the foundations for a new national government two years after the counter-revolutionary war of regime coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon and NATO which led to the ouster and brutal lynching of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

It was unclear how the fighting in Benghazi began, but animosity between the two camps had been building for months.

Ansar al-Shariah, one of Benghazi’s well-known Islamist militias, has been a target of suspicion and resentment at least since some of its fighters were seen participating in the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi last year that killed Mr. Stevens and three other Americans. (In a statement read over local television the next day, its leaders denied playing any role in the assault but at the same time lauded it. )

Ansar al-Shariah rejects the transitional Libyan government as insufficiently theocratic. It maintains its own armed brigade outside of government control. Its fighters retained control of a strategic checkpoint on the coastal road toward Tripoli, but also guarded a local hospital. Its opponent in the battle was a former army unit known locally as special forces, which defected from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces at the start of the uprising against him.

Before they defected, soldiers from the special forces had helped carry out Colonel Qaddafi’s crackdowns on Libya’s Islamists, instilling a mutual distrust. During the fight against the colonel, Islamists were blamed for the assassination of the special forces’ leader, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, and they are presumed to be responsible for a long series of assassinations of former Qaddafi security officers since then.

Other Benghazi residents, caught in the crossfire, grew increasingly resentful of the Islamist militias’ dominance of their city — especially after the attack on the American Mission. And the special forces have stepped forward to try to retake control of the streets, positioning themselves as saviors. By Monday afternoon, their forces occupied highly visible checkpoints around the city, including a Western entrance to Benghazi previously controlled by Ansar al-Shariah.

In a local television interview, a man who identified himself as a member of an allied group of the same name in the coastal city of Derna, which is a hotbed of Islamist militancy, accused the special forces of having started the fight by attacking a checkpoint controlled by Ansar al-Shariah. “They are the ones responsible for all that spilled blood since they attacked us,” said the man, Mahmoud al-Barrasi. He also faulted the military units for having failed to stop the United States from abducting from Tripoli a man suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, a few weeks ago.

“All this army deployment? Why didn’t they deploy when the Christians attacked our country and kidnapped Abu Anas?” Mr. Barrasi said. “Our role models are those who want Allah’s Shariah, like Sheikh Osama bin Laden.”

US-backed rebel Prime Minister Ali Zeidan of Libya flew to Benghazi with a delegation of cabinet officials to meet with local leaders about the unrest.

The fighting in Tripoli that started on Nov. 15 was another flare-up of public hostility to the fractious former rebel militias that have dominated the country, albeit without the same ideological divide.

A cluster of militias from Misurata began shooting at civilian demonstrators demanding an end to the militias’ dominance. In the aftermath, residents called for a three-day general strike to demand that the Misuratans and other militias withdraw from the city, and many appear to have complied.

In an appearance in London over the weekend with Mr. Zeidan, Secretary of State John Kerry called the situation “a moment of opportunity where there’s a great deal of economic challenge, there’s a great deal of security challenge.”

Mr. Kerry said that the Occupied Libyan prime minister had described “a transformation that he believes is beginning to take place and could take place because the people of Libya have spoken out and pushed back against the militias.”

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