TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Clashes between protesters and militias aligned with the military in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi left 27 people killed and dozens wounded, a health official said Sunday.
The violence broke out Saturday after protesters stormed a base belonging to Libya Shield, a grouping of militias with roots in the rebel groups that fought in the country's 2011 civil war who are tasked with maintaining security.
The protesters were demanding that militias leave their camp and submit to the full authority of Libya's security forces.
The death toll is likely to increase public backlash against militias, who have been accused of acting with impunity, abusing citizens and enforcing their own agendas. But while some Libyans see the continued presence of militias as an obstacle to restoring security in the North African state, others believe they are playing a positive role in maintaining law and order while efforts to rebuild a professional army and a police force are underway.
Libyan officials have provided few details of the clashes.
Witnesses say some of the protesters came armed. The camp was believed to house dozens of Libya Shield militiamen, while the protesters who attacked their camp were estimated to number several hundreds. Hospital officials said the protesters made up most of the casualties. They spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Benghazi saw anti-militia demonstrations after the attack last September that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But the central government's security forces remain weak and it has continued to rely on militia help.
Mohamed Belied, who is director at the city's al-Jala hospital, said early Sunday that the deaths were caused by gunshots and explosive fragments.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan, in a statement issued early Sunday after he cut short his tour in Libya's western towns, described the events as "sad and painful" and urged people to be cautious and exercise self-restraint.
He said the protesters demanded that a checkpoint at the entrance of the town be removed and that members of the Libya Shield leave the camp so that the police and army could take over. He said full details would be announced when investigations were completed.
Members of the Libya Shield abandoned the camp following the attack in a move designed to defuse tension, witnesses said.
Colonel Ali al-Shikhi, the armed forces spokesman, said the armed forces had taken control of the situation inside the camp, including protecting heavy weapons stores.
Al-Shikhi said the events were the result of "irregular coordination" between the people and the armed men in the camp, who are considered a reserve force for the Libyan army.
The fighting was the latest episode of lawlessness to hit the North African country, which is going through a rocky transition after its bloody 2011 civil war.
Security remains elusive in the country, still awash with weapons from the war and prone to outbreaks of violence over private and political affairs. A personal feud last week sparked clashes between tribes of African and Arab origins in southern Libya, leaving five people dead.