BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Hundreds of Libyans converged Saturday on a main square in Benghazi and another in Tripoli in response to a call from the military to hand over their weapons, some driving in with armored personnel carriers, tanks, vehicles with mounted anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of rocket launchers.
The call by the Libyan chiefs of staff was promoted on a private TV station in August. But it may have gained traction in the wake of the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which the American ambassador and three staffers were killed. The incident was followed by a popular uproar against armed militias which have increasingly challenged government authorities.
In response, the government has called on all militias to disband or join a command center coordinating between the army and the militias. The government had relied on many militias for security during the turmoil following last year's ouster and killing of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Army Col. Omran al-Warfali said the turnout has been impressive.
"Hundreds of citizens came since the early hours of this morning to handover their weapons from all segments of society, men and youth, women, and even children came to hand over bullets they found it in the streets," he said.
Previously, the government had estimated that over 200,000 people in Libya are armed. It has attempted a number of disarmament schemes, including offering people jobs in exchange for handing over their weapons, or offering to buy guns. Those offers have shown few results.
A military official has been urging citizens in ads on a popular TV station to hand in their weapons. The station, Libya alHurra or Free Libya, showed live footage of Saturday's collection and transfer of weapons to military barracks.
Ahmed Salem, an organizer of the efforts in Benghazi, said over 800 citizens handed in weapons at the main collection point. Over 600 different types of arms were collected, including anti-aircraft guns, land mines, rocket launchers and artillery rockets.
Moussa Omr, a former fighter who lives on the outskirts of Benghazi and who fought against Gadhafi, said it was time to turn over his weapon to the state.
"When I saw the announcement on television I came to Benghazi with my wife and son to hand over my weapon to the national army because I want to move from the stage of the revolution to state building," he said. "I trust the national army. They have been with us on the frontline and I know them one by one. I don't need this weapon after today, the militias have been expelled from Benghazi and the national army will protect us."
Anger at the militias boiled over after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate.
Most of Libya's militias emerged during the eight-month war against Gadhafi, but others sprang up after the end of fighting last October. With the country trying to rebuild after the 42-year dictatorship, the groups paid little attention to successive interim leaders. They were accused of bullying citizens, operating independent prisons and holding summary trials for Gadhafi loyalists. Recently, Islamist-led militias have also attacked shrines, such as tombs associated with religious figures they consider counter to their strict interpretation of Islam.
Last weekend, thousands of protesters marched against the militias in Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising against Gadhafi, and stormed two of their compounds.
In Tripoli, at least 200 former fighters handed over their weapons, including two tanks, at the Martyrs' square in the city center. A cleric urged young fighters to give up their weapons. "The nation is built with knowledge not guns," he said standing in the square.
Associated Press Writer Esam Mohamed contributed to this report from Tripoli, Libya.