Tripoli - Libya's military command appointed on Monday a pair of army officers to head two powerful Islamist militias in the country's east, part of the government's efforts to rein in armed factions amid popular demands that the groups disband.
The move reflects the pressure on the government to control the country's militias, many of which it had relied on for securing the country in the turmoil following last year's ouster and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Colonel Ali al-Sheikhi, the spokesperson for Libya's joint chiefs of staff, told the news agency LANA that the chiefs of the Rafallah Sahati Brigade and the February 17 Brigade, two groups authorities had allowed to manage security in the eastern city of Benghazi, would be replaced with army commanders.
Anger at the militias boiled over following the killing of the top American diplomat in Libya and three US mission staffers in an assault on the consulate in Benghazi on 11 September. The attack followed an angry protest against an anti-Islam film produced in the US which has riled many Muslims in the region.
Members of the radical Islamist Ansar al-Shariah militia are suspected of being behind the attack.
More groups sprang up
Many of those militias were formed in the eight-month war against Gaddafi, but more groups sprang up after the end of the war in October. With the country trying to rebuild after 42 years of Gaddafi, the groups paid little attention to successive interim leaders. They were accused of bullying citizens, operating independent prisons, and holding summary trials for Gaddafi loyalists. Recently, Islamist-led militias have also attacked shrines, such as tombs associated with religious figures, that they considered to be counter to their strict view of Islam.
This Friday, thousands of protesters marched against the militias in Benghazi, the cradle of the revolution against Gaddafi, and stormed two of their compounds. Militiamen at the Sahati Brigade's compound fired at the protesters, killing nearly a dozen.
In an attempt to deflect the anger, Libya's president ordered all militias to dissolve or to come under a joint operation command to co-ordinate between the militia brigades and the army. The military already asked all armed groups using captured Gaddafi-era barracks to evacuate them and hand them over. Security forces have already raided a number of sites in the capital Tripoli used by militias.
The moves surprised some critics who doubted that the government was strong enough to deal with the militias, particularly the powerful Islamist ones.
But many Libyans still feel the government has not done enough.
Retain some groups
In Benghazi, around 200 people rallied against the militias on Monday, decrying the government decision to retain some of the armed groups even if they were under military command. The protest demanded that all militias be disbanded and its members integrated in the security agencies as individuals.
The protesters also demanded an independent investigation into the killing of protesters on Saturday, saying that the government bears responsibility for the actions of a militia upon which it had relied for security.
"The blood of the martyrs will not be shed in vain," the protesters chanted. They called for the chief of staff, defence and interior ministers to be sacked.