Dozens Are Killed in Libya in Fight With Militia

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BENGHAZI, Libya -- At least a dozen people were killed here Saturday and dozens wounded after members of a powerful militia fired on protesters surrounding the group's headquarters in an outpouring of public anger at the armed bands that have been blamed for fueling political violence and undermining a fledgling state.

For several hours on Saturday afternoon, fighting raged at the militia's compound on the edge of Benghazi, as residents in nearby apartment blocks fled their houses and ambulances carried away wounded protesters. By nightfall, the protesters had evicted the militia and set parts of the compound on fire.

Madia el-Fakhery, a doctor at Benghazi's largest hospital, said even though it was receiving only the overflow from the main trauma hospital, the number of casualties was "overwhelming." In the operating room, wounded patients were lying on the floor for lack of space.  "We're seeing gunshot wounds to the chest, head and abdomen," she said. "We've done amputations."

 Though most injuries appeared to be from gunfire, other victims appeared to have been maimed by explosions, she said. She said that by late Saturday evening, the death toll had reached at least 27 people, a number that could not be independently confirmed.

Several people said the protest started with a land dispute, when a family that claimed ownership of the compound demanded that the militia, Libya Shield, leave. But witnesses said it quickly grew, drawing on broader anger at the stubborn persistence of Libya's militias, whose power long ago eclipsed that of the country's weak government.

It was not the first time that Benghazi's residents have lashed out against the militias: in September, after the killing of the United States ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, citizens stormed the headquarters of several militias, including one suspected in the killing. But the spontaneity of the protest on Saturday, and the violence that followed, marked a dangerous escalation of one of Libya's central struggles, the fight between armed Islamists and other militiamen who rose to power during the revolution, and Libyans demanding that authority rest with the state.

The lack of security has been acute in Benghazi, where mysterious assassinations have been a hallmark of Libya's transition since the overthrow of its longtime ruler, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Police stations and other symbols of the government have repeatedly been attacked, at least partly in reaction to the government's attempts to rein in the armed groups.

Last month, in the most brazen challenge yet to the government's authority, militias including Libya Shield armed with truck-mounted weapons shut down the Justice and Foreign Affairs Ministries. The move was an effort to force Parliament to pass a law excluding former officials of the Qaddafi government from office.

A member of Libya Shield, Fathi el-Obeidi, said in an interview that the protests on Saturday started in the morning when members of the family that claims ownership of the compound showed up at its doors, demanding the return of their property. Mr. Obeidi said armed men joined the dispute, setting off clashes between the two sides. Two militia members were killed, he said, adding that the group had removed most of its weapons from the compound before the protesters overran it.

But outside the compound on Saturday afternoon, most of the protesters appeared to be unarmed, though a few men carried machine guns. Bullets flew from the direction of the compound, as protesters burned tires to obscure the battlefield. A crowd gathered around a man shot in the back.

The government called in the military's special forces, but they were not able to stop the clashes or prevent the compound from being overrun.

The protesters complained that Libya's new leaders had accommodated the militias, and even given them official status, rather than demanding that they disband. Men like Wissam ben Hamid, the leader of Libya Shield, had grown too powerful, they said. "He's not willing to give it up," one protester said.

In a measure of Libya's changing fortunes since the death of Colonel Qaddafi, some of the protesters taunted Mr. ben Hamid, who had once been respected for fighting on the front lines during the 2011 revolt. On Saturday, they called him "Wissam Qaddafi."

Suliman Ali Zway reported from Benghazi, and Kareem Fahim from Beirut, Lebanon. Osama al-Fitory contributed reporting from Benghazi.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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