By Ayman Amzein and Maha Ellawati.
Benghazi, 9 June 2013:
The death toll in fighting yesterday outside a military headquarters in Benghazi has left at least 27 people dead and 70 injured. According to Benghazi Congressman Ahmed Langhi, the death toll is 30. Other reports put the figure at 35. A Libya Herald reporter counted the bodies of 25 victims of the violence in the city’s Jalaa Hospital.
The fighting started when as many as 200 protestors gathered outside the headquarters of the First Brigade of the Libya Shield forces (Deraa 1) in the Sidi Khalifa district in eastern Benghazi, demanding it vacate the premises and disband.
The Shield forces operate under the army but are seen as largely independent.
What happened next is unclear. According to Congressman Langhi, the protestors “were unarmed” but then others weapons came and joined them. Who fired the first shots has not been disclosed. One report claims that protestors managed to force their way into the headquarters firing into the air and that Shield forces then fired back at them.
The Shield forced leader Wisam Bin Hamid reportedly said that he told his men to stop firing because he did not want more bloodshed but also told them not to leave their posts.
The headquarters were eventually secured by the army’s Special Forces. Ben Hamed is said to have handed himself into their custody for safe protection. It is also reported, however, that a number of the protestors managed to take guns from the headquarters.
Many of the dead were taken to the city’s Jalaa Hospital which has published the names of the 25 seen by the Libya Herald. Most are thought to have been protestors although one Shield member, Ali Tarhouni, has been reported saying that a number of his colleagues had also been killed. According to the spokesperson for Benghazi’s joint security room, Colonel Abdallah El-Shaeify, five members of the Shield Brigade were killed as Special Forces moved to gain control of the camp.
El-Shaeify said that several were injured during the offensive to capture the headquarters when there was a large explosion. Of those injured, the majority were taken to Benghazi’s Jalaa Hospital, were some died to the severity of their wounds.
It is not yet known who organised the protest although it is claimed that some of the protestors were federalists, others simply wanting an end to any military organisations other than the regular army and the police. One report says that some of the protestors were involved in a land ownership dispute over the Shield headquarters.
Benghazi has seen a swathe of assassinations and attacks on security officials and buildings over the past year and a half but yesterday’s incident is the worst since the slaying in the city of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US diplomatic personnel on 11 September last year.
“It’s a sad day for Benghazi but hopefully it will be an end of the story,” said Congressman Langhi, referring to the lawlessness that has hit the city and the country. “The mess has to end,” he said.
Congress is discussing the deadly incident today.
Libya Shield 1 is directly under the control of Chief of Staff Major-General Yousef Mangoush. It is has a reputation of being pro-Islamist, unlike Shield 2 which is considered more sympathetic to the federalists.
With input from Nihal Zaroug