By Ali Shuaib and Peter Graff
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Mosque preachers told Libyans on Friday to call off planned demonstrations against militia groups for fear marches could lead to renewed bloodshed.
Despite the discouragement, some 400 anti-militia protesters nonetheless gathered in Tripoli's Algeria Square and marched across to the main Martyr's Square, chanting and clapping.
The mufti of Libya, Sadeq al-Gharyani, had said in a statement published by LANA news agency that protests called for Friday should be halted.
"I call on the people not to participate in this march so that no blood is spilled," he said. "There are some people who want to use these protests to cause violence."
Many Libyans are fed up with the militias, formed during last year's war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi but still patrol the streets a year later, often taking the law into their own hands.
Public calls to curb them have gathered strength since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi on September 11. Washington suspects Islamist militia groups may have played a role in the attack.
At the Shara Zawiyah mosque in central Tripoli, the preacher called on believers to respect the mufti's ruling and avoid demonstrations because it could not be guaranteed they would be peaceful. Similar speeches were delivered at mosques elsewhere.
Libya's Interior Ministry said police had been placed on a maximum state of alert to prevent violence for three days beginning on Thursday.
Since Stevens' killing, the government has taken a two-track approach - shutting down Islamist militias operating without permission, but also offering public backing to many of the most powerful armed groups, which have official licenses.
A week ago, Libyans held a massive, government-backed pro-democracy demonstration in Benghazi which culminated with protesters peacefully sweeping an Islamist militia, Ansar al-Sharia, out of its bases in the main city in the east.
Violence then broke out when protesters stormed the headquarters of another group, Rafallah al-Sahati, which operates with government permission. Eleven people were killed and scores injured.
Civil society groups have been calling for a second round of "Rescue Benghazi Day" demonstrations, and a "Rescue Tripoli Day" demo this week. Militias said their supporters would hold counter demonstrations.
But Libyan leaders appear to have decided to discourage the anti-militia street movement for now, after enthusiastically supporting last week's Benghazi demonstration when the army flew fighter jets overhead to salute protesters. A planned Benghazi protest for Friday afternoon has been canceled.
"As our demands are starting to be met in Benghazi, we have decided to give the national congress a chance," Wanis Najim, a student activist and an organizer of the demonstration, said. "There really isn't a mood for a protest in Benghazi."
In Tripoli, hundreds of people held signs reading "No militias, no brigades, we want one army!" and "I will demonstrate for my right to demonstrate!".
Many criticized Gharyani for having spoken out against the march, chanting: "Where where where? Where are you mufti?" as well as "Benghazi you are not alone, we will heal your wounds".
"I am one of the people who carried a gun and fought Gaddafi, and now I am back on the square, to say 'no' again. No to the leaders of militia, yes to a civil state," said protester Murad Zikri, who runs a school in Tripoli.
"I went to the front and fought for my country, but not for a country like this, run by Salafists and the (Muslim) Brotherhood," he said, using his hand to mime the long beard favored by Islamist fighters.
Activist Kulud Dribikha, 50, said she had attended a last-minute meeting in a Tripoli hotel hall on Thursday night where activists were summoned and pressured to call off their march.
"They only let people who were against the demonstration talk," she said, without giving details. "I feel so sorry, because everybody let us down. Nobody came and said: 'No! Tripoli has the right to go out (and protest)!'"
Late on Thursday, Prime Minister elect Mustafa Abushagur said any protests must be peaceful. The army chief said the military would be barred from participating in demonstrations.
(Additional reporting by Omar Mosmary in Benghazi and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Andrew Heavens and Jason Webb)