Libyans try to push back against militias

libya, military
Members of a Libyan rapid unit brigade in charge of clearing unlawfully occupied buildings from militias patrol during an operation in Tripoli on September 23, 2012.

(CBS News) BENGHAZI, Libya - President Obama said Monday the U.S. is gathering evidence in the murders of the Americans in Libya and "there's no doubt" that the assault of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others "wasn't just a mob action."

Evidence is growing that the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens was planned and targeted.

In New York on Monday, the president of Libya met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the United Nations. He called the consulate attack a "huge tragedy." He said the Libyan people had lost a friend.

He was a friend because a year ago Ambassador Stevens was in Libya helping the opposition organize the downfall of the late dictator Muammar Qadaffi.

Qadaffi's overthrow was forced by a rag tag bunch of militias, and since then various militias have been enforcers in their own territories. It's one of those militias that's accused of the attack on the Americans.

Now, however, the people of Bengazhi have risen up to throw out the militias. During the fight to topple Colonel Qadaffi last year these same men were seen as heroes, but since then, many had set themselves up as vigilantes in Benghazi.

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The militias had been operating from their own bases, some of which have now been secured by the regular army. Some of the bases had grim jail cells, where the military says the fighters locked up whomever they felt like.

It was that kind of rough justice that drove hundreds of young men in their cars on Friday night to storm an even bigger base. That's when the looting and the shooting started, catching a CBS News crew in the crossfire.

At least 30 people were injured and 11 killed. In the chaos, it was impossible to tell where the ousted fighters escaped to including members of Ansar al-Sharia, the group suspected of attacking America's consulate.

But even if the police knew where to find them, says Jalal al-Gallal, a businessman and activist, they are too afraid to arrest them.

"They are (scared.) Anybody who says otherwise is lying. We are all scared," Jalal says, adding there is a good chance those who committed the attack won't be arrested.

The U.S. Consulate was left unguarded for about 48 Hours after the attack, and then the Libyan defense ministry sent about five guards who sit in a row of chairs along the main gate and don't let anybody in.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."