Clashes between rival militias in western Libya left 18 dead a day after the government said it would no longer tolerate such infighting that has stunted transition efforts.
At least 18 people died in fighting around the western town of Zawara, Al Arabiya television said. “The government will not stand and watch the people who threaten national security, whatever tribes they are from,” Prime Minister Abdurrahim el- Keib told private television station Channel One and LRT state television late yesterday.
Since proclaiming victory over Muammar Qaddafi last year, the National Transitional Council that took over has struggled to wrest local power from various militias. The armed groups were key to victory in the eight-month civil war that ended Qaddafi’s 42-year rule of the country that holds Africa’s largest proven crude reserves.
Even the international airport in the capital, Tripoli, remains under the control of one of the country’s most powerful militias, which has reneged on repeated promises to hand over the facility.
The main Ras Jedir border crossing into Tunisia from western Libya was closed on April 1 after 22 militiamen from the coastal city of Zuwara were kidnapped by militias from neighboring Al-Jumail. The men were released yesterday and the border reopened, though Zuwara was still being struck by mortar fire, Atia Abdul-Salam, a resident of Al-Jumail, said in a telephone interview today.
Those clashes came days after more than a week of fighting between the ethnic African Tibu militia and the local rival Arab militia in the southern city of Sebha, Libya’s fourth-largest. Almost 150 people were killed and 385 wounded before a cease- fire was brokered by the government, which declared the area a “military zone” on April 1 and appointing an army governor,
The fighting raised the specter of spreading instability in the country, with a Tibu official threatening to declare autonomy.
“If necessary, we will demand international intervention and work toward the creation of a state,” Tibu leader Issa Abdel Majid Mansur was quoted as saying in the Tripoli Post today.
It’s the second region to consider such a push. Some tribal leaders of the country’s oil-rich east declared the formation the semi-autonomous region of Barqa last month.
Libya’s militias have insisted on securing more government benefits for their respective regions before agreeing to disband or being subsumed into the national army, demands that increase the pressure on the interim government.
Militias from some regions have been used as peacekeepers in others. While the NTC sent national forces in Sebha to halt the fighting, government spokesman Nasser al Mattaa said that militia units from Zintan and Misrata, the two most powerful armed forces in the country, were also deployed.
Sebha is only the one of several challenges for the government.
Tribal clashes between Tibu and Arab militias in late February left 22 dead in Kufra before government forces were called in to end the fighting. The town sits about 200 miles south of the Sarir and Messla oil fields that the Arabian Gulf Oil Co. say account for about 80 percent of Libya’s output.
The persistent violence has left Libyans complaining about fitful recovery from last year’s conflict, even as oil production approaches pre-war levels of about 1.6 million barrels per day. It’s currently 1.47 million barrels, Nuri Berruien, head of the National Oil Corp., said in a March 31 interview.
“This kind of chaos is very bad for security, for business, for everything in Libya,” Hana el-Gallal, an official with the Libyan National Council for General Freedoms and Rights in the eastern city of Benghazi, said in a phone interview earlier this month.
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