BEIRUT, Lebanon — Tensions rose in Libya on Saturday, with hundreds of militiamen and armed vehicles on the outskirts of Tripoli following deadly clashes on Friday.
On Friday, a protest in the capital turned deadly, with at least 43 reported dead and more than 400 injured.
Civilians had been protesting against the militias, which are holdovers from the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi, demanding that the militias leave the capital.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan made a call Friday for all armed militias leave the capital. When no militia groups complied, civilians began to protest.
Tripoli residents often protest against the militias, which have rejected repeated calls from a weak central government to leave the capital.
In a sign that the violence is escalating, militia groups responded to Zeidan's call by saying that the only way they would leave Tripoli would be in their coffins.
Friday’s protest was organized by the Tripoli local council, or town hall, and promoted by imams at Muslim prayers held hours before.
Taher Basha Agha, head of the militia responsible for the shooting Friday said live on Libya Al-Ahrar television that his group acted in self-defense after they were fired on by the demonstrators.
“It was not a peaceful demonstration. They carried light arms and shot at us,” Agha said. “I am surprised how the Tripolitania’s who had met us with flowers during liberation, now shoot at us.”
During funeral processions held Saturday for those killed in the protests, angry residents called for revenge. Facebook sites have declared the start of assassinations of any Misratan rebels found in the capital.
Inside sources say Misrata militias, now under siege by official army troops and Tripoli rebel forces which consist of armed civilians, are trapped in their bases with 4 dead and 40 injured with no medical aid.
Calls for backup came through Friday evening to Misrata allies, who quickly gathered troops and weapons and headed towards the capital.
Eight had died so far in continuing clashes between these groups and Tripoli forces on the outskirts of the capital at the time of writing.
“There are now five large battalions that have entered Tripoli at Tajoura. Five more are waiting in Dafnia and other groups are already close to Tripoli ready to defend our brothers,” said Mohammed Sadi, a member of a Misrata militia group deployed to the area of Tajoura Friday night.
“Why do they want Misrata to leave Tripioli? So they can rule the country like Gaddafi did with no one to keep them in check? ... If we never came to Tripoli to free them they would still be under Gaddafi.”
Eyewitness stories vary as to who fired first during the protests that began Friday afternoon.
Tripoli residents say peaceful protesters carried white flags chanting, “We want a legitimate army and a police force.”
Militia groups from regions including Misrata, Zintan and Benghazi operating both under government institutions and independently have continued to fill the role of state army and police since the Libyan revolution ended two years ago.
However, within Tripoli and elsewhere some of these groups have been accused of arbitrary arrests, torture, theft and extrajudicial execution.
The group of protesters included women, children and elderly citizens. Among those killed were several women and two journalists — Hossen Alburnawie of Libya Alhura TV and Salah Iyad Hefiana, Fesatwo News Agency.
Three other journalists were injured along with students and doctors trying to assist the injured.