Tripoli: Libyan militiamen attacked peaceful protesters demanding the disbanding of the country's rampant armed groups on Friday, killing at least 22 people as they opened fire on the march with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Witnesses said protesters went home to gather weapons and later returned to the site of the attack, suggesting more bloodshed was possible. The country's grand Mufti called on protesters to end their demonstrations and said he held the government responsible for ending militias' presence in the capital.
The march in the capital Tripoli by thousands of protesters was the biggest show of public anger at militias in months. Since the 2011 fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, hundreds of militias - many of them on government payroll - have run out of control in Libya, carving out zones of power, defying state authority and launching violent attacks.
The protesters marched from a downtown mosque to the headquarters of a militia originally from the city of Misrata that has a powerful presence in Tripoli. They waved Libyan and white flags and chanted, "We want an army, we want police," referring to demands that the country's weak security forces take the place of militias.
When they neared the building, militiamen in civilian clothes and military uniforms came out of the headquarters, opening fire at the protesters with automatic weapons, RPGs and anti-aircraft guns. Footage aired on the privately owned al-Nabaa television network showed protesters running from gunfire while carrying others covered in blood.
An official at Tripoli Emergency Hospital told The Associated Press it had the bodies of 15 dead protesters. Libya's official news agency LANA quoted a medical official at Tripoli's Central Hospital as saying it had the bodies of seven dead protesters, bringing death toll to at least 22. The agency said the attack wounded more than 130 people, leaving many in critical condition.
Hanan Saleh, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Tripoli, told AP that she counted seven bodies at one morgue.
"The situation is very chaotic. Armed men are running around," she said.
She added: "We expect more dead."
Militiamen also beat a reporter and a photographer before protesters ultimately rescued them. After the attack, some protesters marched back to the mosque while others remained close the militias' headquarters. Many demanded the head of Tripoli city council to use force to expel the armed men.
Al-Taher Basha Agha, commander of Misrata-based militia, vowed in a telephone interview with Libya al-Ahrar that Misrata militias will leave only "dead bodies."
He accused protesters of opening fire first.
"Who is the person who is inciting them?" he said. "The evil ones who are using the civilians as a bridge to cross to power."
The commander offered this threat: "Tripoli has not seen a war yet, it will see it soon."
Protester Mahmoud Taquiya, a computer engineer, said that the protesters carried white flags to show that they were peaceful.
"We didn't expect this to happen," he said in a telephone interview. "There will be no end to protests until the militias are out. When we are done with this one, we will move to others."
LANA agency reported that the Ministry of Defense assigned two battalions to deploy forces to the site of the attack. It quoted Ali al-Shekhli, the spokesman of the chief of staff, as saying that orders were given to separate the protesters and the militia. He also said the military had orders to shoot anyone who was hostile.
Libya's militias grew out of the informally created local brigades of rebels who battled Gadhafi's military. Since his fall and death, the militias have mushroomed in number, size and power. With the army and police still weak, the government has turned to militias to keep security, giving them tasks guarding facilities or districts. But the government pay has not put them under state control, and the armed groups - some of which include Islamic militants - act on their own agendas. Many of them were engaged in kidnappings, torture, assassinations and taking the law into their own hands.
The government has put a December deadline on groups to join state security forces or face losing their government paychecks - though it is not clear if the government will carry out the threat, since it could spark a powerful militia backlash. It has made similar threats in the past.
Many militias have turned villas and residential compounds of former Gadhafi-era officials into camps where they stash weapons and impose control over certain areas.
Over time, some militias allied with politicians and have been used in imposing their political agenda on other lawmakers.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan himself was briefly kidnapped last month by militiamen. Eastern militias seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to around few hundred thousand, robbing the country of its main revenue source.
Friday's march was prompted by a string of incidents involving militias - most recently, street clashes between the Misrata militia and one from Tripoli. The fight was sparked by the killing of one of the Misrata group's commanders, and the gun battles in the street panicked residents.
Al-Sadat al-Badri, the head of the city council, said Thursday that Tripoli residents are "fed up" with militias and called upon people to rally to drive them out of the city.
"We want Tripoli empty of weapons so construction can start," he said. He warned. "Any assault against the protesters will have consequences and our revolutionaries are ready."
It was reminiscent of a similar scene last year in the eastern city of Benghazi, where thousands of protesters besieged headquarters of Islamic militias, forcing them to flee and clashed with others where dozens were killed. The protests came days after the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in a deadly attack on an American mission in Benghazi.