Libya, March 22 – In remote southeastern Libya, two ethnic groups are locked in a standoff over smuggling, threatening to reignite violence that could spill across the borders with Chad and Sudan.
Despite an army-brokered truce, tensions still simmer in the Saharan oasis of Kufra where clashes pitting the Toubou against the Zawiya and other groups claimed more than 100 lives during a fortnight of violence last month.
“This is an uneasy calm. The situation could rapidly become uncontrollable,” warns the head of a brigade of former rebels overseeing the fragile truce in the desert border zone.
On Monday, one of the brigades that have taken it upon themselves to ensure law and order after Moamer Kadhafi’s ouster last year demanded that the Toubou evacuate a security services building.
But the fighters assumed an offensive position, triggering a situation that “would have taken only one shot for things to degenerate,” said Hafedh al-Aguri, head of the “Shield of Libya” brigade.
“We could finish them off in two hours, but we are obeying orders,” joked Mohammed Ibrahim, a soldier of the brigade gathered around a fire along a road dividing the rival zones of control of the feuding Toubou and Zawiya.
“The two tribes do not want our presence. These are people who have lived beyond the law all their lives and prefer to keep killing to control smuggling” in the triangle bordering Chad, Egypt and Sudan, he said.
The region is a key transit route for trafficking of goods of all kinds, both legal and contraband — alcohol, cigarettes, counterfeit goods, drugs, weapons, but especially illegal immigrants hoping to reach Europe.
Dozens of African and Bangladeshi immigrants are arrested each day in Kufra before being handed over to international organisations responsible for their repatriation, said Mahdi Salem, a councillor in the Zawiya-dominated city.
More than 400 immigrants sit silently on the ground of a yard near a police station occupied by former rebels, while four of them boil pasta in two large containers blackened by soot.
“We’ve been here for three months. Our families do not know if we are dead or alive,” lamented Ali Osman, a 20-year-old would-be migrant from Somalia.
“My parents died. I fled the war in Somalia and I came to work on farms before they detained me,” he said.
The Zawiya, traditionally nomadic herders also present in Chad and Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur, accuse foreign elements of fighting alongside the Toubou, traditionally oasis farmers who also have connections beyond Libya’s borders.
The latter, for their part, charge that the Zawiya have committed “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” against their people.
“We have no problem with the Libyan Toubou,” Mohammed Bensdida, head of the Kufra local council, repeats endlessly to journalists flown to the city on a plane chartered by the local authorities.
“We face foreign elements,” he said, in allusion to the much bigger community in neighbouring Chad.
The armed brigades standing between the two ethnic groups acknowlege the interference from across the borders.
“Yes, there are Chadians who provide arms to Kufra. The Toubou have cousins in Chad and when (the fighting) erupted, many of them came to their rescue,” says a former rebel fighter from Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, on the Mediterranean coast, hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the north.
“But the problem is much more complicated. It’s an identity problem and a matter of life or death. The Toubou were marginalised by Kadhafi and now they want revenge by taking control of the borders and smuggling,” he said.
The fighter stressed, however, that his brigade is not taking sides in the conflict.
“The two tribes do not make it easy. The men begin drinking (alcohol) from before noon and, early in the evening, they become uncontrollable,” he complained.
The Shield of Libya reached an agreement with the head of the Toubou tribe for journalists to enter their neighbourhood, located a few blocks away from Zawiya territory in the city centre.
But between the two zones of control, dozens of teenagers armed with AK-47 assault rifles stand in the way of the convoy of reporters escorted by the former rebels.
“It’s okay for you to come in, but without any weapons,” one Toubou tribesman told the former rebels, who then ordered the convoy to turn back.