Demonstrators in Libya have stormed the headquarters of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group and evicted its fighters from the site in a sweep of militia bases in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Friday’s action against the group appeared to be part of a co-ordinated sweep of militia headquarters buildings by police, government troops and activists following a mass public demonstration against armed groups earlier in the day.
Chanting “Libya, Libya,” hundreds of demonstrators entered the compound, pulling down militia flags and torching a vehicle inside the headquarters, Ansar al-Sharia’s main base in Benghazi – once the base of forces of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The crowd waved swords and even a meat cleaver, crying “No more al-Qaeda!” and “The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!”
They tore down the banner of group while chanting “no no to the brigades”.
Armed fighters made a stand at another heavily fortified compound in the eastern city, firing on demonstrators with heavy machine guns and wounding several people, protesters said.
Ansar al-Sharia has been linked to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last week in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans died. The group denies any involvement.
The group is also believed to be behind several attacks in recent months.
“After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists,” said Hassan Ahmed, a demonstrator.
“They did not give allegiance to the army. So the people broke in and they fled.”
“This place is like the Bastille. This is where Gaddafi controlled Libya from, and then Ansar al-Sharia took it over. This is a turning point for the people of Benghazi.”
Adusalam al-Tarhouni, a government worker who arrived with the first wave of protesters, said several pickup trucks with the group’s fighters had initially confronted the protesters and opened fire. Two protesters were shot in the leg, he said.
“After that [the fighters] got into their trucks and drove away,” he said. “When we got in, we found four prisoners in the compound and set them free.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Benghazi, said: “We went there to see their slogans and basically what they’re saying is that they refused insults to the Prophet but they also refuse terrorism in their city.”
“They have also called for the disbanding of the militias, chanting: ‘What are you waiting for?’. They’re asking the government how long it will take before they do that.”
A standoff around the base of Rafallah Sehati, an official brigade of the ministry of defence, left 10 people wounded.
It was not immediately clear who had started the shooting.
Ismail Salabi, leader of the brigade credited with securing the nation for parliamentary elections, told Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid that he was shot in the leg four kilometres from the base.
Salabi, speaking to our correspondent, described the attack as an “assassination attempt”.
The chief of staff and defence minister both alluded to “Gaddafi loyalists” as being responsible for the raid.
The wounded, however, refute such allegations, saying instead that the government and its brigades responded in a violent manner reminiscent of the days of Gaddafi.
Protests against video
Also earlier on Friday, inside the square, which was a key battleground in the uprising that overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year, around 3,000 supporters of the ultraconservative Salafist group gathered.
Waving black Islamic flags, they chanted against a US-made video that mocked Islam and cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by a French satirical weekly.
“Our demonstration is in support of the messenger of Allah 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 the AFP news agency.
“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.”
But President Barack Obama insisted it should not be allowed to tar the reputation of all Libyans.
“I think it is important to understand that that’s not representative of the attitudes of the Libyan people towards America,” Obama said.