BENGHAZI, Libya — Hundreds of protesters stormed the compound of one of Libya's strongest armed Islamic extremist groups Friday, evicting militiamen and setting fire to their building as the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans sparked a public backlash against armed groups that run rampant in the country and defy the country's new, post-Moammar Gadhafi leadership.
Armed men at the administrative center for the Ansar al-Shariah militia, suspected to have led the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate, first fired in the air to disperse the crowd, but eventually withdrew from the site with their weapons and vehicles after it was surrounded by waves of protesters shouting, "No to militias!"
After taking over the Ansar compound, protesters then drove to attack the Benghazi headquarters of another Islamist militia, Rafallah Sahati. The militiamen fired on the protesters, who were largely unarmed. At least 20 were wounded, and there were unconfirmed witness reports of three protesters killed.
"I don't want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform," said Omar Mohammed, a university student who took part in the takeover, which protesters said was done in support of the army and police.
Tens of thousands marched in Benghazi in a rally against armed militias. A vehicle was also burned at the al-Shariah compound, which was taken over by Libyan security forces after its occupants fled.
For many Libyans, last week's attack on the U.S. Consulate was the last straw with one of the biggest problems Libya has faced since Gadhafi's ouster and death around a year ago — the multiple mini-armies that with their arsenals of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are stronger than the regular armed forces and police.
The militias, a legacy of the rag-tag popular forces that fought Gadhafi's regime, tout themselves as protectors of Libya's revolution, providing security where police cannot. But many say they act like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings. Militias made up of Islamic radicals are notorious for attacks on Muslims who don't abide by their hardline ideology.
Some 30,000 people filled a broad boulevard as they marched along a lake in central Benghazi on Friday to the gates of the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah.
"No, no, to militias," the crowd chanted, filling a broad boulevard. They carried banners and signs demanding that militias disband and that the government build up police to take their place in keeping security. "Benghazi is in a trap," signs read. "Where is the army, where is the police?"
Other signs mourned the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens, reading, "The ambassador was Libya's friend" and "Libya lost a friend." Military helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, and police mingled in the crowd, buoyed by the support of the protesters.
At sunset on Friday, the anti-militia marchers slowed as they hit a wall of black flags at the edge of Al-Kish square in downtown Benghazi. A few hundred of Ansar al-Sharia's followers stood clustered at the entrance to the square, chanting the declaration of Islam: "There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his messenger."
On the anti-militia side of the crowd, Libyan flags flapped in the wind and someone started blasting pop music from a car.
The mood was tense.
The march was the biggest seen in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and home to 1 million people, since the fall of Gadhafi in August 2011.
Many say that officials' attempts to co-opt fighters by paying them have only fueled the growth of militias without bringing them under state control or integrating them into the regular forces.
Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias.
The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt last year, Gadhafi's regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.
But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Shariah, the main Islamic extremist group in the city.
"The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous," said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. "We felt that the revolution is going in vain."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.