Militants or no, Islamist fighters praised at Benghazi hospital

BENGHAZI, Libya Sun Sep 23, 2012 10:56am IST

An injured man, one of the demonstrators involved in the attack of pro-government Rafalla al-Sihati brigade base, receives medical treatment at a hospital in Benghazi September 22, 2012.REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

An injured man, one of the demonstrators involved in the attack of pro-government Rafalla al-Sihati brigade base, receives medical treatment at a hospital in Benghazi September 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Before the Ansar al-Sharia fighters came and took over security, al-Jalaa hospital was a terrifying place to work.

Now that the militia has been swept out of Benghazi on a wave of public anger after the killing of the U.S. ambassador, Dr Abdulmonin Salim is one person who will miss them.

"Really honestly? They were very nice guys," he told Reuters inside a ward in what is one of the biggest trauma hospitals in eastern Libya, now guarded by a military police unit that arrived after the militia fighters left the previous night.

U.S. and Libyan officials have blamed Ansar al-Sharia for the attack on the U.S. consulate last week that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats.

The group, whose logo features a Kalashnikov rifle, espouses a militant view of Islam which it says is incompatible with democracy.

Washington links the group to al Qaeda. Dr. Salim doesn't care.

"I don't know about their religion or ideology, but they solved problems," he said. "Honestly, I don't care what happens outside those walls. I don't care if they come from another planet. I want a secure hospital."

"Before them, this hospital was a disaster."

Until Ansar al-Sharia arrived six weeks ago to take over security, fights, threats and disruption were routine.

One of the previous government-provided security guards once thrust a gun into Dr Salim's face and started shouting orders for how to treat a patient. A patient's relative once burst into the operating theatre and held a gun to a surgeon's head while he cut.

None of that would happen on Ansar al-Sharia's watch. Fighters seemed to know how to calm angry families and prevent quarrels, Dr Salim said.

"They speak to people. Solve the problem. There is no problem."

SCORES OF ARMED GROUPS

Like the rest of Libya, Benghazi is prowled by scores of armed groups that mainly operate with the official consent of a government too weak to challenge them.

The militia groups say they fill a vital role, maintaining security that the government has been incapable of imposing without them in the years since the civil war that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Most of them have been given public buildings to guard. Ansar al-Sharia took on the task of providing security at a-Jalaa.

But it was one of the few militia that did not place its fighters under the command of Libya's defence ministry, making its overt presence an affront to the government.

The Libyan authorities responded to the death of Stevens by organising "Rescue Benghazi Day", a mass demonstration against militia groups that culminated late on Friday with crowds storming through Ansar al-Sharia offices.

The group, which had vacated its offices in advance and put up no resistance, announced on Saturday that it had evacuated its premises in the city to preserve peace.

At al-Jalaa hospital, a unit of military police showed up to replace the fighters. Their commander, Lieutenant Salah al-Jurushi, said they were given the order on Friday night.

Rescue Benghazi Day did not go smoothly. After sweeping through at least two Ansar al-Sharia bases overnight, crowds also stormed a base belonging to Rafallah al-Sahati, a powerful militia that, unlike Ansar al-Sharia, does have government authorisation.

Eleven people died and scores were injured in violence there, and looters made off with rockets and rifles.

Although Ansar al-Sharia seems no longer seems to have an overt presence in Benghazi, its departing fighters took their weapons with them. The group and its ideological allies have presences in other towns in eastern Libya, notably Derna, a city to the east that is known across the Middle East as a recruiting hotspot for Jihadists to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

For Dr Salim, the fighters' departure means the government must now step up and provide the sort of professional security it was unable to offer in the past.

"Really, we hope from the government for help," he said. "I am very worried." (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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