Africa

Benghazi security forces' impossible task

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Media captionMany of the militias fought against Col Gaddafi and distrust the new government

Black anti-riot trucks and dozens of police cars tour the streets of Benghazi in a big show of strength. Relentless sirens attract more onlookers and the newly equipped and heavily armed police officers look serious as crowds gather to watch and take pictures.

This is the first time the Benghazi police force looks like it is getting back on its feet.

It is an attempt by a weak government to make its presence felt on the streets.

For the last two years, the streets of the Libyan city of Benghazi have been awash with weapons and controlled by a complicated network of militias.

Some fought on the frontline against the Gaddafi forces, others escaped from prison during the revolution and were unemployed vigilantes.

The majority of these militias have Islamist backgrounds some of them more hard line than others - all of them, however, are heavily armed.

And in the new Libya guns mean power.

These militias are not directly involved in politics now; but many consider them to be the real players in everyday life in Libya.

Especially in the east of the country, where central government has no control.

Criminals 'better armed'

Cities like Benghazi have been caught in the midst of infighting between official forces trying to assert control and militias refusing to give it up.

The police force has come under numerous attacks lately, including two bombings on the al-Berka police station in central Benghazi.

It was blown up twice in less than a week and the perpetrators are still at large.

Image caption The government has struggled to stem the flow of weapons and disarm militias in Libya

"We have a problem with the spread of weapons in the city," Lt Tarek al-Kharraz said as he walked through the rubble of what used to be the office of the head of the station.

"The criminals are better armed than we are. This is the reality now in Libya."

The bombing is a stark illustration of what the police force here is up against.

These groups refuse to give up arms to a government they say they cannot trust.

"They are afraid of this invisible enemy. They say: 'If we hand in our weapons, Gaddafi men will control the country again like we haven't done anything'," says Mohamed Jouweify, a member of the February 17 brigade, one of the biggest in Benghazi and Libya.

"Do you know who we should go and hand in our weapons to," asks Salem El Darby, founder of the Abu Salim Islamist Brigade said.

"The army? Well many serving in the army now worked under Gaddafi. How can you ask young men to hand in their arms to such government?"

"Arms will be handed in when the proper Libyan government is established."

'Cradle of the revolution'

There have been many protests against the militia's power and their refusal to give up arms.

Many see them as forces above the law, completely unaccountable and for many intimidating.

The people say they've had enough - they want official forces on the ground now.

And the government has finally responded.

Image caption Benghazi residents have welcomed the increased security presence in the city

Special Forces units have been deployed and are patrolling the streets.

Many of them can be seen on the many roundabouts of Benghazi some carrying AK 47s and others on the backs of trucks manning anti-aircraft guns.

"People are happy to see us on the streets because there's been a lack of security in the city but Special Forces aren't trained to be deployed like this," says Col Wanis Boukhmada, the man overseeing the Special Forces in Benghazi.

"I feel like saluting them every time I see them," Nada Ebkoora, a young radio broadcaster from Benghazi said.

"We can feel the difference now that they are here."

But this presence may not last long. Especially if the political will to assert control over the city by those in power is not there.

"Our presence on the streets depends on government instructions - we cannot tell you how long we'll be in Benghazi," Col Boukhmada said.

The promenade of the vast and beautiful Benghazi coast is just opposite Freedom square. "Cradle of the revolution" is what a big sign in the square says in Arabic.

On this warm afternoon, families are out enjoying a stroll by the beach and young children are riding their small bikes in front of their parents.

More than anything, people here long for security.

And while there is a general sense of relief now that government forces are on the streets, there is a fear that if they pull out, Benghazi could once again descend into violence.

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