TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Militias from a string of Libyan cities left the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday, nearly a week after militiamen killed more than 40 people protesting their presence in the city.
The withdrawal is a triumph for the residents of Tripoli, who on Nov. 15 held a mass protest against the militias, which have fueled lawlessness nationwide since the 2011 fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The heavily armed groups, some of them led by Islamic extremists, have defied control by the weak central government, carving out fiefdoms, acting as a law unto themselves and imposing their control.
Witnesses said the militiamen gave their bases to army troops in handover ceremonies before they headed out of the city. They kept their weapons, mostly assault rifles, anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks and rocket-propelled grenades. The militias that left come from four cities, including Zentan to the south of Tripoli and Misrata to the west.
Government moves to rein in militias, however, risk detonating an explosive backlash leading to outright battles between the rival militias. Since many of them are rooted in specific cities and act as arms of political groups, any violence could pit city against city in the already fragmented nation.
Libya’s military swept into Tripoli on Monday in an operation to drive out the militiamen. The troops met a warm welcome from Libyans seething with anger against the numerous armed groups running rampant in the country.
The 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.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan on Thursday urged Libyans to respect their army and police and heed their orders. He also said he intended to submit a draft law to parliament that criminalizes the illegal possession of arms — targeting unruly militias.