Galvanized by anger over the killing of American ambassador here last week, thousands of Libyans marched through this city on Friday, demanding the disarming of the militias that helped topple the dictatorship but have troubled the country with their refusal to disband.
In a show of mass frustration at the armed groups, protesters seized control of several militia headquarters on Friday night and handed them over to Libya’s national army in what appeared to be a coordinated sweep. They also stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a hard-line Islamist militia that has been linked to the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
As members of Ansar al-Sharia fled their headquarters, protesters set at least one vehicle on fire, and Reuters reported that one person was killed. There were unconfirmed reports that several had been wounded by the departing gunmen.
At the seized headquarters of another militia, protesters burned and pillaged a large number of weapons, and hundreds of looters could be seen walking away with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The militias, which started forming soon after the February 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi began in this eastern Libyan city, emerged as a parallel and often menacing presence after his downfall in October 2011, seizing territory for themselves and asserting their authority over the fledgling government.
But no weapons were left behind in most of the seizures, protesters and officials said, suggesting the militias had been anticipating such an event because of a buildup of resentment against them.
In a further sign that tensions had been stoked, some militia members accused Qaddafi loyalists of instigating the backlash. Mohamed Bazina, a spokesman for the Rafallah al-Sehati brigade, one of the militias whose headquarters were seized, said it had video evidence to prove it.
“This is a military coup against the true revolutionaries in the city of Benghazi,” he said. “Benghazi will not calm down.”
The attack on the American Mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, was an affront to many in Benghazi, which the ambassador had made his base during the uprising.
“We want justice for Chris,” read one sign among the estimated 30,000 Libyans, including families, who marched into Benghazi’s main square on Friday to protest in front of the chief encampment of Ansar al-Sharia.
Some held signs reading “The ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya lost a friend.” Many protesters carried Libyan flags, and government police officers could be seen mingling with the marchers.
Members of Ansar al-Sharia held a counterdemonstration, and arguments erupted between the opposing sides, but no violence occurred, at least not initially. Protesters chanted: “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan.”
The ambassador and the others were killed in mayhem that was ostensibly provoked by anger over an anti-Muslim video that was made in the United States and has been roiling the Islamic world for nearly two weeks. But officials have said there are indications that part of the attack may have been coordinated and planned.