BENGHAZI, Libya — Six soldiers were killed early Saturday in attacks believed to be retaliation for the expulsion of a major militia from the city last weekend, raising fears of an imminent showdown between the formal army units and rival militia brigades over control of eastern Libya.
Each side accuses the other of threatening to subvert the promised transition to a democratic civilian government after the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.
The militias are led mainly by Islamists persecuted for decades by Gadhafi’s soldiers and police officers. The brigade leaders have continued to view the military and police officers with hostility even after many of the eastern divisions defected to join the rebellion two years ago.
While the militia leaders accuse the officers of collaboration with remnants of the old government, the former army leaders charge the Islamists of seeking to use their new military power to dominate the new government.
Tensions came to a head last weekend after a real estate dispute with neighbors of the city’s most potent brigade, Libya Shield, escalated into a one-sided gunfight that killed at least 31 people, all but two of them protesters.
In the aftermath, Libya Shield and the other major brigades scattered from their compounds before morning for fear of retaliation by the families of those killed. The regular army units, known here as “special forces,” deployed on the streets in a bid to consolidate control. Brigade leaders and their allies have charged that members of the regular army units were among the protesters, aiding an initial attack that led to the bloodshed.
Gunfire and explosions were heard in the streets as early as 11 p.m. Friday. But an army spokesman in Benghazi told Reuters that the clashes lasted from 2 to 6 a.m. Saturday and resulted in the death of six soldiers. Residents said the attacks on the army units had taken place in several locations, including at the army headquarters.
Outside the headquarters Saturday, visibly anxious soldiers said their gate had come under attack by rocket-propelled grenades in the early hours of the morning. “Until now we are totally confused” about who did it, said the soldier controlling the gate, brushing off journalists seeking comment. “Let’s figure out what will become of us first.”
Jamal Bennor, a judge, said community leaders were encouraging civilians to secure their own neighborhoods, in an attempt to head off a potential confrontation between militias and the army.