TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya's interim army chief of staff insisted Tuesday that militias will have to lay down their arms or join the military by year's end after 31 people were killed in protests against the militia forces.
Speaking in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the deadly clashes erupted over the weekend, killing mostly civilians, Col. Salem Qineydi said the government still needs militias to assist in securing the country, but that ultimately they will have to either join the army or return to civilian life.
The clashes prompted the resignation of the previous army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Youssef al-Mangoush. He was in charge of the country's roughly 12 Libya Shield brigades, a largely Islamist grouping of militias paid by the government to help maintain security.
Qineydi did not give specifics on how the government would implement the timeline, but vowed that there would not be another special guard like the one under dictator Moammar Gadhafi that pledged allegiance to him.
His comments come after some in Libya expressed concerns that Prime Minister Ali Zidan is pushing to create a highly trained force that excludes militias which could protect him against armed pressure from the groups.
The issue of freewheeling militias has plagued the country since the overthrow of Gadhafi in 2011.
Militia leaders are reluctant to give up their autonomy and join the army. They also refuse to work for officials who served under Gadhafi and are still in the army.
The militias helped not only in ousting Gadhafi, but also in securing the country's borders, airports and first free elections last year as the army and police worked to rebuild themselves. Now many Libyans are growing impatient with the parallel security structure that allowed some militias to operate on the government's payroll.
The bloodshed Saturday underscored public anger over the government's failure to build an army capable of reining in the militias, which dominate parts of the country and have become bolder in trying to shape Libya's politics.
The violence erupted when protesters in Benghazi, the country's second largest city, stormed the main camp of Libya Shield. The protesters were demanding that the militias submit to the full authority of Libya's security forces or lay down their arms.
Qineydi said some of the nation's militias were rooted in the rebels that fought to oust Gadhafi, but that others were not. He complained that even those with roots in the uprising have taken on their own personal agendas.
"I tell all those that do not have legitimacy that it is best to leave the cities," he said. "There are those operating without coordination with the army ... and unfortunately now it has become a competition between revolutionaries."
"We are ready to secure the city of Benghazi without the support of battalions or revolutionary brigades," Qineydi said, referring to the government-aligned militias. An elite military force took over Libya Shield's main base in Benghazi after the violence.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution that led to Gadhafi's capture and killing, was the site of the Sept. 11 assault last year on the U.S. diplomatic mission that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. High level police officials have also been assassinated and security bases have come under frequent attack there by unidentified assailants.
The capital, Tripoli, has also been the scene if attacks on foreign missions, though smaller in size in recent months. On Tuesday, a car belonging to the Italian Embassy was bombed in Tripoli, though no one was inside. A bystander was reported injured.