* Militias given until Dec. 20 to leave town
* Militiamen say they agree in principle with deadline
* Success would be boost to new provisional government (Recasts with evening protest, militia comment, protester quotes, detail)
By Francois Murphy and Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Around 2,000 protesters called on Wednesday for militias to leave the streets of Tripoli, in a show of support for the new government which is trying to end months of lawlessness that have followed this year’s civil war.
The various militias came together to oust Muammar Gaddafi and have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of his 42-year rule three months ago. Some are headed by strongmen jostling for position before elections planned for the middle of next year.
The interim government is pressuring militiamen to go home and leave the job of keeping order to the police and a new army it plans to create. Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib and the city council have given militias until Dec. 20 to leave.
“We want security. No to weapons, yes to national unity,” Aisha Hassan, 43, said at the protest on Martyrs’ Square shortly before sunset, denouncing the proliferation of arms ranging from pistols to heavy artillery, often fired just for fun.
“Someone won a weightlifting tournament in Africa and they celebrated by firing anti-aircraft guns,” Hassan said, adding that she hears shooting in her neighbourhood every night.
The city council announced the protest a day in advance, in the same statement in which it issued the ultimatum to militias. Turnout was modest compared with previous mass demonstrations.
“It is anticipated that the demonstration will escalate day by day until 20th December,” the statement, issued on Tuesday evening, said. Local groups have since set up night-time checkpoints in the capital to increase pressure on militias.
Protesters, who chanted ‘We don’t want weapons’ and ‘The people want the national army’, complained of feeling unsafe on the streets and of militiamen behaving like common criminals.
“To me they are not revolutionaries anymore, they are gangs,” said 38 year-old Abdurrauf bin Suleiman.
Militias from the coastal city of Misrata and the mountain town of Zintan are among the most powerful armed groups inside the Libyan capital. They man roadblocks, roam the city in pick-up trucks, and have set up bases in government buildings.
Militiamen spoken to by Reuters said they agreed in principle with the deadline but they were awaiting further information or official orders before complying.
“If the government asks us to go back to Misrata, we will go back,” said Mustafa Ahmed Dabshoun, who heads a Misrata brigade stationed on the eastern edge of Tripoli, adding: “I am against the presence of arms inside the city.”
A militia commander from Zintan, whose men control Tripoli International Airport, said his men would hand over to security forces as soon as the government issued the order.
“Whenever they ask us to hand over, we will hand over as required. This is what we agreed upon,” said Ali Ejda, deputy airport commander. “We are supporting people in Tripoli to call for the removal of weapons from the streets.” he added.
“We look forward to being relieved of this extraordinary duty and going back to our civilian lives.”
The provisional government, which was sworn in less than two weeks ago, has said security is a top priority. Ridding the capital of militias would boost its credibility significantly as it seeks to assert its authority after an eight-month civil war.
Some of the most powerful militia leaders, who many people believe are trying to convert their military muscle into political clout for the elections, are based in Tripoli. One of them said he would comply but he wanted more information first.
“We accept the decision to disarm the militias but we would like to know how the weapons will be handed over,” Abdullah Naker, head of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council, told Reuters.
“We need to know whether security in the city will be protected,” he added.
Wednesday’s protest followed a smaller one earlier in the day by judges and lawyers, who took to the streets after what they said was a militia raid on the prosecutor general’s offices on Tuesday.
The crowd of about 250, carrying placards reading “No to weapons; Yes to justice!” gathered outside Tripoli’s courthouse before marching to Martyrs’ Square.
“These are people who spent time in prisons. They left prison, put on the uniform of revolutionaries and have started to steal in the streets and attack police stations,” Adel M‘salati, a chief judge at the Tripoli court, told protesters.
“Now we ask the military to take its place and the police to take their place to provide justice and security for the country and the people,” M‘salati said. (Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Taha Zargoun; Writing by Francois Murphy and Christian Lowe; editing by David Stamp)