BENGHAZI, Libya — The Libyan army on Sunday said it raided several militia outposts operating outside government control in the capital, Tripoli, while in the east, the militia suspected in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate said it had disbanded on orders of the country's president.
President Mohammed el-Megaref said late Saturday all of the country's militias must come under government authority or disband, a move that appeared aimed at harnessing popular anger against the powerful armed groups following the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador.
The assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, which left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead, has sparked an angry backlash among many Libyans against the myriad of armed factions that continue to run rampant across the nation nearly a year after the end of the country's civil war.
On Friday, residents of Benghazi – the cradle of the Libyan revolution last year that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi – staged a mass demonstration against the militias before storming the compounds of several armed groups in the city in an unprecedented protest to demand the militias dissolve.
The government has taken advantage of the popular sentiment to move quickly. In a statement published by the official LANA news agency, the military asked all armed groups using the army's camps, outposts and barracks in Tripoli, and other cities to hand them over. It warned that it will resort to force if the groups refuse.
On Sunday, security forces raided a number of sites in the capital, including a military outpost on the main airport road, which were being used as bases by disparate militias since Gadhafi was driven from the capital around a year ago, according to military spokesman Ali al-Shakhli.
Tripoli resident Abdel-Salam Sikayer said he believes the government is able to make this push now because, thanks to the country's first free election in decades that took place in July, the public generally trusts it.
"There was no trust before the election of the National Congress that is backed by the legitimacy of the people and which chose the country's leader. There is a feeling that the national army will really be built," he said.
The government faces a number of obstacles, though. It needs the most powerful militias on its side to help disband the rest. It also relies on militias for protection of vital institutions and has used them to secure the borders, airports, hospitals and even July's election.
Some of the militias have taken steps over the past several weeks to consolidate and work as contracted government security forces that are paid monthly salaries.
In the western city of Misrata, for example, resident Walid Khashif said dozens of militias held a meeting recently and decided to work under the government's authority. He said the militias also handed over three main prisons in the city to the Ministry of Justice to run.
Since Gadhafi's capture and killing, the government has brought some militias nominally under the authority of the military or Interior Ministry, but even those retain separate commanders and often are only superficially subordinate to the state. El-Megaref told reporters late Saturday that militias operating outside state authority will be dissolved, and that the military and police will take control over their barracks.
But it remains unclear if the government has the will – and the firepower – to force the most powerful militias to recognize its authority.
Backers of the ousted regime continue to hold sway in some parts of the country, particularly the western city of Bani Walid and parts of the deep south. Gadhafi loyalists near the southern town of Barek al-Shati clashed with a pro-government militia for several days, killing nearly 20, and abducted 30 militiamen working with the authorities from a bus this week, according to Essam al-Katous, a senior security official.
Over the past 11 months, a series of interim leaders has struggled to bring order to a country that was eviscerated during the eccentric dictator's 42-year rule, with security forces and the military intentionally kept weak and government institutions hollowed of authority.
Powerful militias like Ansar al-Shariah in eastern Libya say there is no clear system in place for how the head of the joints chief of staff decides which militias are legitimate and which are not. The extremist group, which is suspected in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate, was not deemed legitimate by the state.
Rather than join the military, the Ansar militia, viewed as the most disciplined and feared one in the east, said it disbanded on Sunday.
"Now, we have only light personal weapons," said Youssef Jihani, a senior figure in the group.
He said the group turned over heavier weapons to Libya Shield, a major militia in Benghazi relied on by authorities. Senior figures from Libya Shield in Benghazi could not be immediately reached for verification.
The move to disband comes after some 30,000 people took to the streets of Benghazi for a mass protest against the militias on Friday. The protesters drove out Ansar gunmen and set fire to cars in their compound – once a major base for Gadhafi's feared security forces. Others stormed into the Jalaa Hospital, driving out Ansar fighters there.
The militias, born as people took up arms to fight Gadhafi's regime, are organized largely along local lines and bristle with heavy weapons. Many pay little attention to national authorities and have been accused of acting like gangs and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Islamist militias often also push their demands for enforcement of strict religious law.
Mohamed reported from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press correspondent Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.