Vehicles burn after armed Libyan demonstrators stormed the headquarters… (Abdullah Doma / AFP/Getty…)
CAIRO — Libyan authorities announced late Saturday that any armed groups not authorized by the state would be disbanded, and the Libyan military took control of militia bases in Benghazi that had been abandoned during clashes between paramilitary groups and protesters demanding the dissolution of the groups.
The plan to rein in the militias was announced by National Assembly President Mohamed Magariaf, who toured the city after protesters stormed the militias' headquarters late Friday night, furious over the previous week's killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans when a group of heavily armed men attacked the U.S. Consulate.
At least 14 people were killed and 70 wounded Friday in the fighting at the militia bases, according to medical reports. Among the dead were five soldiers; a sixth was seriously wounded. All the soldiers were found with their hands tied behind their backs and a gunshot to the head, medical sources said.
Residents in Benghazi have blamed the deaths of Stevens and the others on an armed Salafist group called Ansar al Sharia, which also guards the city's hospital. The Islamic group has denied involvement in the killings.
Hundreds of protesters forced Ansar al Sharia members out of their base late Friday and then burned it as they demanded that the army — rather than unaccountable armed groups — protect their city.
Demonstrators later clashed with the Rafallah al Sahati brigade, another militia that has cooperated with the government. Despite its official backing, the activities of Rafallah al Sahati have angered Benghazi residents. The group also abandoned its base when confronted by so many protesters.
Sami Khashkhusha, a political science professor at Tripoli University, saw the events as a possible opportunity to successfully restrain the militias.
"It is a clear message to all armed groups, especially Salafists," he said. "The Libyan people will not accept the hijacking of our revolution or the dictating of the shape of our institutions.
"The government now has the political will," he said.
Magariaf, in a late-night news conference, announced that a joint-operations center would be set up for the Libyan army and government-sanctioned militias. He said it would ensure a chain of command that would report to the top security commander in Benghazi.
The lawmaker said it had been decided that all militias not sanctioned by the state would be disbanded. But it was unclear which armed groups would be considered illegitimate, or how the government would crack down on them, given its reliance on such groups to maintain security.
On Saturday, the army occupied the Rafallah al Sahati base.
Some soldiers, reflecting the complexity of the situation, continued to express sympathy for groups like Rafallah al Sahati, describing them as fellow revolutionaries.
"Rafallah al Sahati acted wisely when they left their headquarters," said soldier Saif Alddin Saad. "They are good people and real rebels. Things like this happen sometimes."
A Times special correspondent contributed to this report from Benghazi.