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Protesting Libyans storm militant compound in backlash against armed groups

Thousands of Libyans stormed the headquarters of an Islamist militia group in Benghazi Friday night in a deadly exchange. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Updated 5:20 p.m. ET: An Islamist militia was driven out of the city of Benghazi early on Saturday in a surge of protest against the armed groups that control large parts of Libya more than a year after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

A spokesman for Ansar al-Shariah said the group had evacuated its bases in Benghazi "to preserve security in the city." 

In a dramatic sign of Libya's fragility, the crowd swept through the base and went on to attack a pro-government militia, believing them to be Islamists, triggering an armed response in which at least 11 people were killed and more than 60 wounded, according to Reuters.

Ansar al-Shariah is the militant al-Qaida inspired group that some allege played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

White House: Libya consulate siege that killed four was 'terrorist attack'

The invasion of its compound, which met little resistance, appeared to be part of a coordinated sweep of militia bases by police, government troops and activists following a mass public demonstration against militia units in Benghazi on Friday. 

The two main Islamist militias in Derna, a city in eastern Libya known as an Islamist stronghold, withdrew from their five military bases and announced they were disbanding, residents said on Saturday.

"Abu Slim had three camps and Ansar al-Sharia had two. So it's five. Empty. All empty," Siraj Shennib, a 29-year-old linguistics professor who has been part of protests against the militia, said by telephone.

Thousands of Libyans storm an Islamic militia group's base to show support for the country's government. MSNBC's Thomas Roberts and NBC's Atia Abawi report.

While the late Friday protests in Benghazi were planned in advance though social networking sites and flyers, the storming of the heavily armed militia headquarters took many by surprise.

Demonstrators pulled down militia flags and set a vehicle on fire inside what was once the base of Gadhafi's security forces who tried to put down the first protests that sparked last year's uprising.

Hundreds of men waving swords and even a meat cleaver chanted "Libya, Libya," "No more al-Qaida!" and "The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!" 

"After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists," demonstrator Hassan Ahmed said. "They did not give allegiance to the army. So the people broke in and they fled. 

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Abdullah Doma / AFP - Getty Images

An armed Libyan man flashes the victory sign in front of a fire at the hardline Islamist group Ansar el-Sharia headquarters in Benghazi on Friday.

"This place is like the Bastille. This is where Gadhafi controlled Libya from, and then Ansar al-Shariah took it over. This is a turning point for the people of Benghazi."

'Benghazi will be your inferno!'
Adusalam al-Tarhouni, a government worker who arrived with the first wave of protesters, said several pickup trucks with Ansar fighters had initially confronted the protesters and opened fire. Two protesters were shot in the leg, he said. 

"After that they got into their trucks and drove away," he said. Protesters had freed four prisoners found inside, he said. 

Continuing to chant anti-Ansar slogans, the crowd, swelling into the thousands, moved on to try to storm a separate compound where the powerful pro-government Rafallah al-Sahati militia was entrusted with guarding a big weapons store, and opened fire on the assailants.

Looters carried weapons out of the compound as men chanted: "Say to Ansar al-Shariah: 'Benghazi will be your inferno!'"

As parts of the Muslim world fire up with anti-American protests, thousands rally to support America in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed a week earlier. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Officials at three hospitals told a Reuters correspondent they had a total of five dead and more than 60 wounded from the night's violence.

A trail of blood near two abandoned cars led police to six more dead bodies near the Rafallah al-Sahati compound on Saturday morning, police officer Ahmed Ali Agouri said.

"We came as peaceful protesters. When we got there they started shooting at us," student Sanad al-Barani said. "Five people were wounded beside me. They used 14.5 mm machineguns."

After Libya, renewed questions about al-Qaida 

The withdrawal of Ansar al-Shariah across Benghazi and the huge outpouring of public support for the government suggests an extraordinary transformation in a country where the authorities had seemed largely powerless to curb the influence of militia groups armed with heavy weapons.

Nevertheless, Ansar al-Shariah and other Islamist militias have bases elsewhere in eastern Libya, notably around the coastal city of Derna, known across the region as a major recruitment centre for fighters who joined the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. 

'No to militias'
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 they now face public criticism and are accused of acting like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings. 

Abdullah Doma / AFP - Getty Images

Thousands of people march in Benghazi during a protest against militias on Friday. The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed four Americans was the spark that ignited growing frustration with the armed groups that have proliferated since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.

Libyan military chief of staff Youssef al-Mangoush said three big militias — Rafallah Sahati, Feb. 17 and Libya Shield — are considered "pro-government" and warned protesters against pushing for what he described as "counter-revolution" goals. The government heavily depended on Rafallah Sahati, for example, to secure Benghazi during the country's first national elections in July in decades. The militia took its name from an Islamist fighter who battled fiercely against Gadhafi's forces earlier in the revolution.

But most of Libya's militias still answer to their commanders before the state. Protesters, like those on Friday, want the fighters to be trained outside Benghazi and follow state army orders as individual soldiers and not as part of a militia. Many of the militiamen are unruly and undisciplined civilians who raised arms during the eight-month war.

Mohammed al-Megarif, head of Libya's General National Congress, ordered protesters to leave alone militias that are "under state legitimacy, and go home." Nearly seven hours of clashes ended shortly after his demand that was broadcast on local Libyan TV channels. 

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Although the main demands of the marchers on Friday did not mention the attack on the U.S. Consulate, it seems to have provided a strong impetus for the authorities to rally support behind the country's weak government.

Some protesters carried signs reading "The ambassador was Libya's friend" and "Libya lost a friend," the AP reported.

"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 told AP.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin, and Kari Huus contributed to this report.

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