TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya's military swept into the capital Monday with dozens of pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns in an operation to drive out militiamen, met by a warm welcome from Libyans seething with anger against the numerous armed groups running rampant in the country.
Libya is seeing its strongest public uproar yet against militias, which have fueled lawlessness nationwide since the 2011 fall of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. The heavily armed groups, some of them led by Islamic extremist commanders, have defied control by the weak central government, carving out fiefdoms, acting as a law unto themselves, and imposing their control.
But the move to rein in militias risks detonating an explosive backlash leading to outright battles between rival militias. Since many of the militias are rooted in specific cities and act as arms of political groups, any violence could pit city against city in this already fragmented nation. Monday's sweep was the most assertive yet by the military, but the government's armed forces and police remain weak and rely on allied militias for firepower.
Drivers honked their horns and flashed V-for-victory signs in a show of support as the troops moved in, set up checkpoints and roamed the streets. On mobile phone messages and through TV networks, the Defense Ministry urged people to support the army. It was not clear where the troops came from or why were not they deployed before.
Essam al-Naas, spokesman of the Joint Operation Room, a security body under the prime minister, said that as the military deployed, militias from the western city of Misrata, withdrew from four districts of the capital and returned to their city. Police forces also vowed to deploy around the city to keep security.
Sporadic gunfire was heard in eastern Tripoli, in an area called Wadi al-Rabie, when members of the Misrata militia fired on a Tripoli-based militia that was demanding they surrender their weapons before leaving, al-Naas said. There was no immediate report of casualties.
The army's move came as the United States on Monday announced it would train up to 8,000 Libyan soldiers, aiming to bolster the military. In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the U.S. will train the troops in Bulgaria on basic, general purpose skills.
Libyans' anger was stoked when militiamen opened fire Friday on an anti-militia protest in Tripoli, killing at least 43 people. Protesters were demanding the removal of militias, raising signs reading, "The tyrant was killed and we won't accept new tyrants." The militia's commander told local TV stations that there was a "third party" which opened fire to turn people against the militias. The next day, another militia attacked a military base, sparking clashes that left four dead.
The violence prompted a three-day strike in Tripoli by residents to show anger at the militias and prompt the government to act. Anger at the government and lawmakers has risen as well among Libyans who say they are implicated with militias and have not done enough to rein them in. On Monday, the second day of the strike, the city was quiet and only essential services such as bakeries, gas stations and hospitals.
"What we are witnessing is like a difficult labor," lawyer and Tripoli resident al-Mahdi Ihmaid said of the new anti-militia push. "But if the government doesn't make it this time, this could turn to another Iraq."
He said Tripoli protesters plan to march on more militia encampments in the city and there is a general call to topple the government and parliament because of ties to militias, particularly among Islamic factions in parliament like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Gomaa al-Mashri, a security expert and former police officer, said he expects violence. But, he said, the popular uproar "will sweep out the government, the parliament and the militias all together and Libyans will start all over again."
"The country is moving into the right direction. But this is the price we have to pay," he said.
Libya's militias originated in the "revolutionary" brigades that fought against Gadhafi's forces in the 2011 civil war. Since Gadhafi's ouster and death, they have refused to disarm and have grown in size and power. Too weak to disarm the militias, the military, police and government have tried to co-opt them, paying them to take on security roles such as guarding districts, facilities, and even polling stations during elections.
But the policy has backfired, empowering the militias. They continue to act as armed vigilantes with their own interests, sometimes turning political feuds into armed conflicts. They have become notorious for imposing their own laws in areas under their control — including strict Islamic rules — as well as engaging in kidnappings, extortion and gunbattles in the streets.
Misrata, Libya's third largest city, is not the only city with a militia arm in the capital. Tripoli has been divided up into fiefdoms between rival militias from different cities and towns. For example, the main militia of the western city of Zintan — which was the first to sweep into the capital to oust Gadhafi — still has a powerful presence in Tripoli.
The militias often justify their role by arguing they are the "protectors" of the revolution and that they paid the price during the civil war with thousands killed and wounded, while Tripoli failed to rise up against Gadhafi.
In reaction to public anger, Misrata's city council decided to withdraw its armed groups from Tripoli but also called on ministers from the city to leave the central government in protest. It was not immediately clear if the ministers would do so.
Abdel-Basit Boum Zariq, deputy head of a human rights commission set up by the Misrata city council, hinted at retaliation, denouncing the push against the Misrata militia as a "counter-revolution."
"What is happening is the old regime is coming back in new clothes," he said. "We believe that Tripoli needs to be liberated again."
There is a worrying precedent for militia backlash. Last year, protesters marched against militias in the eastern city of Benghazi, after an attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in the city killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Since that time, Benghazi — Libya's second largest city — has seen constant violence and lawlessness, with frequent assassinations, car bombings and kidnappings.
As the Misrata militia began its withdrawal from the capital, Libya's deputy intelligence chief Mustafa Nouh was released Monday, a day after he was abducted by gunmen as he was leaving the airport in the capital, Tripoli, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. It was unclear who had abducted Nouh, whose family is originally from Misrata.
Lawmaker Asmaa Saraiba said there was a push in parliament to cut off government salaries for militias immediately — a move the government had promised to take in December, though there was skepticism it would dare take a step likely to anger the armed groups.
"It's too early to tell whether the government will be able to impose security," said Saraiba. "What we are seeing is that there is a lack of political will."
Michael reported from Cairo.