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BENGHAZI, Libya - An estimated 30,000 Libyans rallied against militias in the tense city of Benghazi on Friday, drowning out a protest by radical Salafists angry over a film and cartoons deemed offensive to Islam.
"No to armed formations" and "Yes to the Libya army" read banners raised by protesters at the Tibesti Hotel before marching to Al-Kish Square, near barracks housing several brigades.
"Our law is God's law, not the law of the jungle," women chanted.
Banners paid tribute to US ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed along with three Americans on September 11 in what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday said was a "terrorist attack" on the US consulate in Benghazi.
"Libya lost a friend" and "We want justice for Stevens," signs held by protesters read.
Organizers had called the march to demand that the central government in Tripoli tame the armed groups that have retained huge powers since last year's Western-backed uprising overthrew Moamer Kadhafi.
They demanded the withdrawal of powers conferred on the militias and urged the national congress to pass legislation criminalizing them and passing a law on bearing arms.
The organizers also called for the withdrawal of all armed groups from state buildings and institutions and support for measures to revitalize the police and army.
Organizer Mohammed Abujanah told AFP Benghazi's chronic security problems stem from the failure to disband the brigades of ex-rebels.
"We are saving Benghazi from insecurity," he said, saying the authorities were wrong to integrate the brigades into the security forces as intact units rather than disbanding them and selecting competent individuals from them.
The protest was also to reject extremism, which Abujanah described as "part of the brigades problem" and as a sign to the international community that Benghazi still needs its presence and moral support.
"Benghazi needs support now more than ever," he said.
"We have an elected body, now we need a strong army. Benghazi will regain its sparkle despite all the sad and unhappy events," Abujanah added.
Libyan activist Jalal al-Gallal put the number of protesters at more than 30,000.
"They made it very clear that... there is no need for them any more (paramilitary groups) although they were the heroes of the revolution," he said.
A rival protest in the same square by jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia drew hundreds of people waving black and white flags inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.
"There is no God but God," they chanted, as well as "Obama is the enemy of God," referring to US President Barack Obama.
The militia, which rejects democracy and refuses to join security forces which they see as tainted by Gaddafi loyalists, raged against a film made in America mocking Islam and French cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
"France and America are attacking us by mocking our prophet, not the other way round," said Mohammed Abdullah, a 30-year-old jobless man.
A brigade member said: "It wasn't enough for them to produce a film denigrating the Prophet in America, off goes France insisting on publishing cartoons in its newspaper that are offensive to our Prophet."
"We will never tolerate that."
Attack helicopters and fighter jets flew low over Benghazi in a clear warning to both camps. Police, troops and community leaders patrolled the site.
"If defending our prophet is terrorism then we are terrorists" read one placard in the Ansar al-Sharia protest. But their banners were vastly outnumbered by the tricolor of the 2011 revolution.
There were no signs of weapons, an AFP journalist said.
A group of Benghazi residents, meanwhile, stormed the barracks of the Martyrs of Abu Slim brigade and ousted its members.
"We kicked them out and called the army to take over this place," Hamza Jehani told AFP, adding that around 70 people had forced their way inside and driven the militiamen out.
A security officer said there were no casualties and no weapons were left behind.
Clinton for the first time on Friday described the consulate assault, which came on the anniversary of 9/11, as a "terrorist attack" that could have links to Al-Qaeda.
"What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans," Clinton told lawmakers in Washington.
Benghazi, cradle of the anti-Kadhafi revolt, remains home to several loosely organised militias with varying degrees of ties to the interim government, some of them Islamist.