By Feras Bosalum
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - At least 25 people were killed and 70 wounded in clashes in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Saturday between protesters, eventually backed by government forces, and a militia operating with Defence Ministry approval, a doctor said.
Residents said dozens of protesters, some armed, had massed outside the headquarters of the Libya Shield brigade demanding the disbanding of militias who have yet to lay down their weapons nearly two years after the overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
After several hours of fighting, military special forces were brought in to restore order and seized the compound, losing five men in the process, a military source said.
A doctor at central Benghazi's al-Jalaa hospital said he had counted 25 dead in all and between 70 and 80 wounded.
Resentment against Libya's myriad militias has been growing in recent months, especially after militiamen laid siege to ministries in Tripoli last month to force their will on the national assembly.
But the central government, whose own forces are too weak to maintain security in a country awash with weapons, has found itself having to co-opt or license some of the most powerful militias to maintain even a semblance of order, while shutting down some others.
The Libya Shield brigade is made up of former rebel fighters who say they are aligned with the Defence Ministry.
"A group of protesters started protesting against the presence of militias. They were calling for the disbanding of groups to rebuild the army," said a Benghazi resident who declined to be named.
"As I was leaving, I saw protesters throwing stones and the other side fired back."
A Reuters reporter at the scene heard shooting and counted at least a dozen wounded people being carried to ambulances.
Ahmed Belashahr, a local activist, said: "People protested because they believe militias go against Libya's stability, which can only be achieved through a proper army and police."
Members of the Libya Shield brigade were not immediately reachable for comment.
Last September, shortly after an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed, the city saw a huge outpouring of public anger at the militias.
(Additional reporting by Ghaith Shennib in Tripoli; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Kevin Liffey)