*VOA correspondent Jamie Dettmer also reports that extremists are setting up shop in Southern Libya*
Voice of America News, Reuters (Benghazi, Libya and Beiruit, Lebanon, June 09, 2013) — Libya’s army chief has resigned after clashes between protesters and a government-aligned militia left 31 people dead in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The violence erupted Saturday when protesters in Benghazi stormed a base of a group of Islamist militias paid by the government to help maintain security. The protesters were demanding that the militias lay down their arms and submit to the authority of Libya’s security forces.
Army Chief of Staff Youssef al-Mangoush, who was in charge of the militias, resigned Sunday. He has been criticized for delays in forming a national army and allowing the militias to thrive. Libya’s police and military rely on the brigades to help with security of the country. But state security officers have accused al-Mangoush of corruption and of failing to exert authority over the militias.
The continued existence of myriad militias, nearly two years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, is a growing source of public resentment, but the authorities have relied on some armed groups to help keep order in a country awash in weapons.
Fighting broke out on Saturday when protesters, some armed, massed outside the headquarters of the Libya Shield brigade to demand the disbanding of the militias. Order was only restored in Libya’s second city after special forces seized the compound of the militia, which said it was operating with the defense ministry’s approval.
“The death toll now stands at 31 as more people succumbed to their wounds this morning,” a doctor at the al-Jalaa hospital said. “There are more than 100 injured, some very seriously.” The doctor did not say how many of the dead were protesters or militia. The military lost five men, a military source said late on Saturday.
There was a heavier than usual police presence in Benghazi on Sunday ahead of funerals for the dead. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced an inquiry into the violence.
Resentment against the militias has built since armed groups laid siege to ministries in Tripoli last month to press demands. Anger at the militias surged in Benghazi last September after the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. mission there. Hundreds of people attacked the offices of an Islamist militia forcing its dissolution. No deaths were reported in those disturbances.
Extremists Setting Up Shop in Southern Libya
Meanwhile, from Beiruit, VOA reported that growing lawlessness in southern Libya and an influx of Islamist militants from Mali are stoking worries that Libya’s security weaknesses are fast becoming a destabilizing factor in the region.
A former Libyan intelligence source has told VOA that al-Qaida-linked jihadists driven out of Mali by a French-led offensive earlier this year have set up at least three jihadist camps in southern Libya in recent months. As a consequence, the source said, Libya has now become the headquarters for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The situation has triggered criticism from neighboring sub-Saharan nations and has caused Libya to appeal for technical assistance from Europe to help police the nation’s long borders. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan reacted angrily to accusations last month that suicide bombers behind twin blasts in Niger that killed 24 crossed over from Libya. What appeared to anger the Libyan leader the most was the claim by Niger officials that Libya was becoming a safe haven for militants affiliated with al-Qaida.
Zeidan insisted that Libya was working hard to be a good neighbor and that its own investigation had shown that no terrorists had crossed into Niger from Libyan territory. In January, the Zeidan government was equally dismissive of Algerian claims that al-Qaida-affiliated militants used Libya to mount the deadly assault on an Algerian gas facility that left dozens dead. Algerian officials said the assailants wore Libyan military uniforms and drove vehicles with Libyan license plates.
Alarm rising over extremists in Libya
European officials have expressed their own concerns about the movement of radical Islamists into Libya. The terror group’s increased presence in Libya comes at a time the country is reeling from several threats to—or attacks on—Western targets.
French President Francois Hollande has pointed to Libyan lack of security as a cause for major worry. In May, the French embassy in Tripoli was bombed, and the French leader has argued publicly that there is a link between the bombers behind that attack and those responsible for the blasts in Niger on May 23.
Despite Zeidan’s public denials, he has started to focus attention on the south of Libya, and has been conferring with his officials to see what can be done to reverse what his aides say is a deteriorating situation in the south.
Zeidan also visited NATO headquarters in Brussels last week to seek assistance.
A team of NATO experts is due to arrive in Libya shortly to assess military training and border security needs. NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says technical aid “would be a fitting way to continue our cooperation with Libya after we successfully took action to protect the Libyan people two years ago.”
In May, an advance team of border security experts from the European Union arrived in Tripoli to start up a mission separate from NATO to provide technical assistance and advice. Libya has been plagued by instability since the overthrow of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi 18 months ago.
Army and police barely functioning
The country’s army and national police are barely functioning and the Libyan government has had to deputize revolutionary militias to fill the security vacuum. In late April, those same militias blockaded key government ministries to force through reforms they wanted.
In addition, there has been episodic fighting in the south and east of the country between the Tabu, a non-Arab African minority in Libya, and the Zway, an Arab tribe. The two groups have had long-running disputes over identity and control of resources and experts say the resulting lawlessness has allowed the jihadists to establish themselves in the area.
And one expert, Frederic Wehrey, at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says the government policy of allowing militias and tribal elders to mediate such disputes is only aggravating the ethnic rivalry. “This informal strategy has failed to provide lasting peace or address the entrenched roots of the conflict,” Wehrey concluded in a recent study. “In some instances, it has ended up inflaming tensions even more.” He said the militias had adopted a partisan approach, siding all too often with the Zway.
Joint efforts to police the tri-border region between Libya, Chad and Sudan have been plagued by disputes and lack of coordination, say UN officials. The chief of staff of the Libyan Border Guard Force, Brigadier General Abdul-Khaleq Al-Senussi, acknowledges that regional security will partly depend on how effective Libya is in securing its borders. “We need everyone to stand by us and help us,” he said recently.