* Headquarters of Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group targeted
* Group was linked to last week's attack on U.S. consulate
* Libyans march in Benghazi to support democracy
* Four killed, 34 wounded
By Peter Graff and Suleiman Al-Khalidi
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 22 The powerful Islamist
militia Washington blames for an attack on its Benghazi
consulate was swept from its heavily fortified bases in Libya's
second city in a mass popular uprising in support of the
government early on Saturday.
The action against Ansar al-Sharia appeared to be part of a
coordinated sweep of militia headquarters buildings by police,
government troops and activists following a mass public
demonstration against militia units on Friday.
At least four people were killed and 34 wounded, hospital
sources said, as militants fought demonstrators. Gunfire could
be heard in the area before the fighters were forced out.
Looters carried weapons out of the vacated Ansar al-Sharia
military base compound as men clapped and chanted: "Say to Ansar
al-Sharia, Benghazi will be your inferno."
Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the U.S.
consulate in Benghazi last week in which the U.S. ambassador to
Libya and three other Americans died. It denies involvement.
Chanting "Libya, Libya", "No more al Qaeda!" and "The blood
we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!" hundreds of men
waving swords and even a meat cleaver, stormed Ansar al-Sharia's
headquarters in Benghazi.
"After what happened at the American consulate, the people
of Benghazi had enough of the extremists," demonstrator Hassan
Ahmed said. "They did not give allegiance to the army. So the
people broke in and they fled."
Demonstrators pulled down militia flags and set a vehicle on
fire inside what was once the base of former leader Muammar
Gaddafi's security forces who tried to put down the first
protests that sparked last year's uprising.
"This place is like the Bastille. This is where Gaddafi
controlled Libya from, and then Ansar al-Sharia took it over.
This is a turning point for the people of Benghazi," said Ahmed.
Adusalam al-Tarhouni, a government worker, who arrived with
the first wave of protesters, said several pickup trucks with
the group's fighters had initially confronted the protesters and
opened fire. Two protesters were shot in the leg, he said.
"After that they got into their trucks and drove away," he
said. Protesters had freed four prisoners found inside, he said.
As protesters left Ansar al-Sharia's headquarters, the crowd
swelled, reaching thousands as it headed toward the Islamists'
military base, which was shared with another militia group.
Protesters said the militiamen opened fire as they arrived
and several people were wounded.
"We came as peaceful protesters. When we got there they
started shooting at us," student Sanad al-Barani said. "Five
people were wounded beside me. They used 14.5 mm machineguns."
After the crowd entered that compound, Libyan army trucks
sped away from the base carrying government troops cheering in
victory and crying out, "God is greatest."
Vigilantes armed with machetes and clubs blocked the highway
leading away from the compound, stopping cars to prevent looters
from driving off with heavy weapons.
"We went into the camp and we didn't find anyone. We just
took these Kalashnikovs," said one youth, holding rifles.
The demonstrators also took over a compound belonging to the
Abu Slim brigade and another Ansar al-Sharia compound.
The apparent defeat of Ansar al-Sharia across Benghazi and
the huge outpouring of public support for the government marks
an extraordinary transformation in a country where the
authorities had seemed largely powerless to curb the influence
of militia groups armed with heavy weapons.
Nevertheless, Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militia
have bases elsewhere in eastern Libya, notably around the
coastal city of Derna, known across the region as a major
recruitment centre for fighters who joined the wars in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Syria.
Thousands of Libyans had marched in Benghazi on Friday in
support of democracy and against the Islamist militias that
Washington blames for the assault on its consulate. Hundreds of
Ansar al-Sharia supporters held their own protest.
Friday's "Rescue Benghazi day" demonstration called for the
government to disband armed groups that have refused to give up
their weapons since the NATO-backed revolution last year.
"It's obvious that this protest is against the militias. All
of them should join the army or security forces as individuals,
not as groups," student Ahmed Sanallah said. "Without that there
will be no prosperity and no success for the new Libya."
Although the main demands of the marchers did not mention
the attack on the U.S. consulate, it seems to have provided a
strong impetus for the authorities to rally support behind the
country's weak government.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was well liked, and many
Libyans condemned the attack on the consulate despite being
angered by the anti-Islamic U.S.-made film that triggered it.
Some protesters' placards read: "We demand justice for
Stevens" and "Libya lost a friend." Others had mixed views.
"I am out today to defend Benghazi. Killing the ambassador
is a completely separate thing," said 26-year-old Amjad Mohammed
Hassan, a network engineer. "I don't give a damn about the
killing of the ambassador because the Americans offended the
Prophet. I am just here for Benghazi."
Benghazi, 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tripoli across largely
empty desert, is controlled by various armed groups, including
some comprised of Islamists who openly proclaim their hostility
to democratic government and the West.
Some are identified by local people as being among those who
were at the consulate protest last week. U.S. officials have
described the violence as a "terrorist attack."
Abu Al-Qaa, a demonstrator at the Ansar al-Sharia
demonstration, said Stevens had been "preparing for the entry of
American troops into Libya".
"The will of the Prophet was to expel infidels from Muslim
lands so that Muslims prevail. Terrorising your enemy is one of
Islam's tenets." He said he had fought U.S. troops in Iraq where
he was arrested, sent back to Libya and jailed for three years.
One banner at the Ansar al-Sharia demonstration read: "Day
to rescue Benghazi or day to rescue America?"