Libya’s second city Benghazi braced for rival demonstrations Friday by a jihadist militia and its opponents with tensions still running high after a deadly attack on the US consulate last week.
The hardline Salafist group Ansar Al-Sharia called for protests over a US-made film that mocks Islam and cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by a French satirical weekly.
The group, which has denied playing any role in the September 11 attack in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, urged supporters to rally around Al-Kish Square, which was a key battleground in the uprising that overthrew veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi last year.
“Our demonstration is in support of the messenger of Allah (Mohammed) and to condemn the abuse of Islam and Muslims carried out by any given country, chief among them France and the US,” a group member told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“It wasn’t enough for them to produce a film denigrating the Prophet in America, off goes France insisting on publishing cartoons in its newspaper that are offensive to our Prophet. We will never tolerate that.
The demonstration is set for 5:00 pm (1500 GMT), the same time as a “Save Benghazi” march organised by militia opponents is due to head for the same square from the Mediterranean city’s Tibesti Hotel.
Organisers have called that march to demand that the central government tame the armed groups that have retained huge power since the Western-backed uprising that overthrew Kadhafi.
They will demand the withdrawal of powers conferred on the militias and pressure the national congress to pass legislation criminalising them and codifying the law on bearing arms, organisers said.
They will also demand the withdrawal of all armed groups from state buildings and institutions and full support for measures to revitalise the police and army.
Organiser Mohammed Abujanah told AFP Benghazi’s chronic insecurity stems from the failure to disband the brigades of ex-rebels who fought in the uprising.
“We are saving Benghazi from insecurity,” he said, saying the authorities were wrong to integrate the brigades into the security forces as intact units rather than disbanding them and selecting competent individuals from them.
The protest is also to reject extremism, which Abujanah described as “part of the brigades problem” and as a sign to the international community that Benghazi still needs its presence and moral support.
“Benghazi needs support now more than ever,” he said.
“We have an elected body, now we need a strong army. Benghazi will regain its sparkle despite all the sad and unhappy events,” Abujanah added.
Benghazi was the cradle of the revolt and reamins home to several loosely organised militias with varying degrees of ties to the interim government, some of them Islamist.
The White House for the first time Thursday described the consulate assault, which came on the anniversary of 9/11, as a “terrorist attack” that could have links to Al-Qaeda.
Speaking on Air Force One, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
But President Barack Obama insisted it should not be allowed to tar the reputation of all Libyans.
“I think it’s important to understand that that’s not representative of the attitudes of the Libyan people towards America,” he said.