TRIPOLI, Libya — 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.