DERNA, Libya (Reuters) - A day after their once feared Islamist militia decided to disband, a dozen die-hard fighters of the Abu Slim Brigade screamed towards us in their cars and piled out, red-faced with fury at the “infidels” come to witness their retreat.
We had arrived in the city of Derna, at the eastern end of Libya’s long Mediterranean coast and known as a stronghold of Islamist fighters, to find it transformed.
The Abu Slim militia of veteran guerrillas had dissolved in the face of popular anger, fuelled in part by public disgust at the killing of the respected U.S. ambassador two weeks ago.
It was afternoon siesta time on Sunday and there was no sign on the sleepy streets of the bearded gunmen who had once maintained checkpoints and patrols.
Derna has long had a reputation across the Middle East as a recruitment centre for jihadi fighters who have travelled to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Washington believes groups there may have been involved in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11 in Benghazi, the main city in the east, 300 km (180 miles) away.
The Abu Slim Brigade, which draws its name from a Tripoli jail where Muammar Gaddafi’s men machine-gunned 1,200 Islamist prisoners in 1996, are still respected here even by many of their opponents for their role in resisting the dictator.
They were among the first and boldest to take up arms in the revolution that toppled Gaddafi last year, and many credit them with having restored order in the absence of a police force after the collapse of Gaddafi’s state.
But in recent months they had antagonised residents and clashed, sometimes violently, with powerful local tribes.
Residents say the fighters were already scaling back their profile in the town when the killing of Stevens proved a tipping point, prompting large demonstrations of activists who confronted them at their bases demanding they disband.
There are plenty of signs that the militiamen will not all depart peacefully.
On Friday, someone fired a rocket that missed the car of Abdul Salam Ayed, an outspoken journalist who has made programmes for Libyan television about protests against the militias. The rocket hit his house, exploded against the wall and shattered the front glass. Neighbours saw two men with face masks fleeing the scene. No one has claimed responsibility.
“I have no enemies and I’ve never been threatened before,” Ayed told Reuters, refusing to speculate on who was to blame. But he added: “When I was doing my programme, I had a premonition that something bad would happen to me.”
In fact, he does not want the militias to disband, he said: ”What I want is for them to come under the umbrella of the army.
“Some of them are good people. But if they disband, they will scatter, and you will find all kinds of people with weapons, and no brigade to control them.”
The morning we had arrived in Derna, Abu Slim’s leader Salim Derby had told us by telephone that he had ordered the group dissolved once and for all to preserve the peace.
We first drove up to a camp in the centre of town that had been vacated the previous day and was being inspected by a small group of military policemen in civilian clothes - a common enough paradox in Libya, where interim governments have put troops on the state payroll but not always into uniform.
A forklift truck came and drove off to a scrap yard carrying a rusty, six-barrelled 105 mm rocket launcher, a Soviet-style Grad, which the militia fighters had left behind in the camp.
The soldiers there said they would lead us to a larger camp for the Abu Slim force on the edge of the desert, a gargantuan base housing some buildings of a former Gaddafi-era installation on the outskirts of the town.
When we pulled up, the family that owns the land on which the base is built had already shown up to reclaim it from the fighters. They had spray-painted their name, Tajouri, on an outside wall.
One man from the family served us glasses of sweet tea at the gate and told us that a small number of fighters were still present, in a distant part of the camp, getting ready to depart.
Interpreter Ghaith Shennib went in to see if the fighters were willing to talk with us. He found them packing their bags into pick-up trucks. When he said we were journalists the leader of the small group could hardly contain his rage.
”Get out of here! We are going. You can do your work after we are gone,“ Shennib recalled him saying bitterly. ”What more do you want from us? We are already leaving.
“It is you people from the media who turned society against us.”
While his fighters were, he said, abiding by the order to disband, they would no longer recognise the leader who had ordered the brigade wound up.
“Salim Derby does not represent us. He does not represent the Abu Slim brigade,” he said. “The men of Abu Slim, we do not need a brigade in order to come together.”
Another of the men asked which media organisation we worked for. When Shennib replied “Reuters”, they exploded with fury to discover that we were foreigners.
One shouted: “Reuters? Infidels!” and they poured into vehicles and sped out to confront us.
We were still holding our glasses of tea when they swooped on us in rage.
One fighter shouted “Kufr!” - infidel - in the face of Egyptian photographer Asmaa Waguih as they grabbed her camera. Another snatched my notebook and started pulling me into the compound.
”Nakhnu al-Qaeda!“ shouted another: ”We are al Qaeda!
“Don’t let us ever see you in Derna again!”
Shennib persuaded them to let us go, and won back Waguih’s camera. They had kept a memory card and two mobile phones.
Shaken but unhurt, we sped off back into town. Darkness was falling, the siesta was over and the streets were coming alive with families out to shop in the cooler air. Nobody followed us from the camp back into Derna, a city where the fighters of Abu Slim are no longer welcome.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald