Hundreds of residents and policemen in Tripoli protested jointly on Wednesday against former rebels who toppled Moamer Kadhafi but are still camping out in the capital and parading their weapons.
Men, women and children waving Libya’s national flag and shouting slogans against the militias gathered in Tripoli’s landmark Martyrs Square in a rally organised by the city council and backed by the interim government.
“Safety comes when there are no weapons,” teacher Salwa Lamir, dressed in a black hijab, told AFP as she held a banner reading: “No weapons in Tripoli.”
“We’re protesting against weapons and people using weapons. I want the militias who came from outside Tripoli to leave. They have to go back to their homes and continue with their studies,” she said.
Around her the crowd chanted “The people want safety!”
On Tuesday, the interim government gave its firm support to a two-week deadline for militias to quit Tripoli, backing up a threat from the capital’s council to lock down the city if they fail to do so by December 20.
The militias, mostly from the cities of Misrata and Zintan, took part in the liberation of Tripoli in August and have been in the city ever since, often occupying buildings to use as their headquarters.
They have manned checkpoints on key roads and also at installations such as the capital’s international airport.
Pressure to disarm the former rebels in Tripoli has mounted after local media reported several skirmishes between various factions in recent weeks.
On October 5, the country’s new leaders ordered all heavy weapons removed from Tripoli, warning that their prolonged presence risked giving a bad image to the revolution which ousted Kadhafi who was later killed on October 20.
“These militias even intervene in police work, often asking us to free comrades of theirs held by us. This obstructs the application of the law,” said one agitated policeman, Mustafa Salem, on Wednesday.
Behind him dozens of officers walked in the square shouting “Libya is free now, the militias must leave!” as others sounded the horns of police vehicles.
Another resident, Mohammed Seghaier, said the capital was becoming dangerous.
“They are causing problems. We want the rebels from outside Tripoli to go as the city is becoming dangerous,” he said, adding that security must now be in hands of the national army and police.
When asked if the police and army can guarantee security, he said: “Yes. With the help of Tripoli rebels, the police can offer security.”
But a rebel from Misrata, the third largest city in Libya, blamed the recent incidents on members of “Kadhafi’s fifth column” who he said had infiltrated some militias.
“It is the fifth column which is creating these problems, not us,” said Hamza Ghanem, whose comrades from Misrata captured and killed Kadhafi in the dictator’s hometown Sirte on October 20.
Ghanem, himself a veteran of the Sirte battle, said he and other Misrata fighters in Tripoli were helping protect the city.
“Our group is protecting the National Oil Company building and offering security to employees there. We are ready to leave Tripoli the moment our commanders tell us,” he said, denying he had weapons as he roamed the streets in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Dozens of lawyers and judges also protested earlier on Wednesday outside Tripoli’s main courthouse, calling for protection.
“We demand protection for judges and lawyers. These militias must leave Tripoli,” said Abdelhakim al-Arabi, a judge in the city.
On Tuesday, witnesses said dozens of armed men and civilians forced their way into the courthouse and office of the attorney general, Abdelaziz al-Hasadi, calling for an ex-rebel allegedly involved in a murder to be freed.
The prosecutor fled before being caught by angry demonstrators who demanded that he sign a release order for the accused.
One Tripoli rebel on Wednesday expressed doubts about the ability of the police to offer security by themselves.
“Libya is free and it is a country belonging to all Libyans. Anybody can come to Tripoli,” said Abdulmonam Binzena as he stood guard at the square and defended the presence of former rebels from outside the capital.
“I’m not sure the police can offer security on their own. But together with rebels they can,” he said.