Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Libya: State of emergency

As tribal fighting continues in Libya’s south and west, the government declares a state of emergency, moving to restore security — if it can, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 18 January, Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) declared a “high state of emergency” in response to the grave deterioration in security in the south and west of the country. Fierce fighting between Tebou and Awlad Suleiman tribesmen in Sebha, 770 kilometres south of Tripoli, entered its second week while in some quarters of the city and some other towns in the south and west groups linked with the Gaddafi regime raised green banners. This was the first open display of the colours of the former regime since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
On Monday, 14 January, representatives of the Council of Notables and Tribal Elders of Libya and Tawareq leaders succeeded in mediating a 72-hour truce between the Tebou and Awlad Suleiman militias. The hope was that the GNC, the highest authority in the country, and the government headed by Ali Zeidan, would take advantage of this opening to send in more government troops and police forces to secure a lasting disengagement and then set into motion an investigation into the clashes. However, the truce quickly collapsed. The warring tribes accused one another of being the first to violate the truce, with Awlad Suleiman leaders charging that Tebou militias had brought in reinforcements from their fellow tribesmen across the border in Chad. Blame was also directed against the Zeidan government for failing to act effectively. Ali Zeidan has come under increasing criticism from the GNC and large segments of the Libyan public for the poor performance of his government in all areas, and calls for his removal grew more strident against the backdrop of the severe security breakdown.
The alarm heightened Saturday when heavily armed gunmen attacked and seized control of the Tamahind air force base near Sebha and other military sites in the area. There were also clashes in the area between the civil airport at Sebha and the headquarters of the Faris Sixth Regiment Infantry Brigade while mortar bombs were fired at the military zone and the headquarters of the Libya Shield Southern Regiment. In another incident, a group of gunmen passing by a military camp in Sebha refused to heed the call to lay down their arms. When soldiers fired warning shots in the air, the gunmen opened fire against the soldiers, precipitating a clash that resulted in many casualties.
Al-Gaddafi Eshtiwi, director of the Manshiya field hospital told Al-Ahram Weekly, by phone, that the hospital received one dead and six wounded Saturday. He complained of a severe shortage in surgeons and medical equipment and supplies in the hospital, which has been struggling to cope with the rise in casualties in recent days.
On Saturday morning, Colonel Ali Al-Sheikhi, official spokesman for the Office of the General Chiefs of Staff, denied reports that gunmen had attacked and seized control of the airbase. However, later that day he issued a statement confirming the reports.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Zeidan appeared on national television to announce that he had ordered military reinforcements to be sent to Sebha to regain control of the situation in the south. He said that he had sent the minister of defence, Abdallah Al-Thani, to Misrata, located to the east of Tripoli, to convey instructions to the forces stationed there to head to Sebha. He added that a small group of gunmen had entered the airbase outside of Sebha, but that the government was in control of Sebha itself, and its civil airport. He acknowledged that the confrontation at the airbase was continuing, but vowed that it would be brought to an end soon.
In his televised address, Zeidan stated that the instructions to deploy in the south were issued to the central division of the Libyan Shield and to forces at the Misrata military zone, which would cooperate with the Misrata revolutionaries. “The mission of these forces in the south comes in the framework of a national mission to spread security and achieve stability in the area,” he said.
The coastal city of Misrata is home to some of the best-trained soldiers and militiamen due to their combat experience during the uprising in 2011 against the Gaddafi regime. However, the Misrata militias were also subject to widespread condemnation in November during demonstrations organised by people in Tripoli against the spread of violence between rival militias that were controlling different parts of the capital. When demonstrators headed into the upscale neighbourhood of Gargour, where a branch of the Misrata militia had established its headquarters, militiamen opened fire into the crowds, killing 60 and wounding 650. The outpouring of public fury forced the Misrata militiamen to withdraw from the capital.
Last week, Zeidan announced the creation of a “ministerial committee” to monitor the situation in Sebha and to determine the causes of the renewed outbreak of conflict in the south. The committee is to work together with southern tribal leaders and notables to settle the conflict and resolve pending differences. Consisting of Minister of Justice Salah Al-Marghani, Minister of Labour Mohamed Sawalem, GNC representative from Sebha, Al-Taher Al-Makani and chairman of the Tebou National Rally Mohamed Adam, the committee headed south Saturday to begin peace talks between the warring tribes.
In their meeting with this government delegation, Tebou representatives stipulated several conditions for agreeing to a ceasefire. One was that all military bases, the Sebha Citadel — one of the city’s historic monuments — and the headquarters of the Faris Regiment be cleared of all militia groups. Another was the creation of a fact-finding commission to investigate claims that Chadian forces were fighting with the tribe. A third demand was the replacement of the current military governor of Sebha, Colonel Mohamed Al-Bouseifi, with the assurance that his replacement would not be a member of the Awlad Suleiman tribe. Fourthly, the Tebou representatives demanded that the national security directorate and other security agencies be restructured so as to free their hierarchies and operations of tribal structures.
For his part, Ali bin Mohamed, a leading member of the Awlad Suleiman tribe, said that the ministerial delegation had not met with his tribe. He added, “We don’t have any problem with the Tebou tribe. We object to the Chadian militiamen fighting alongside them.”
Meanwhile, another “ministerial committee” created by the government headed to Misrata. Consisting of Minister of Defence Al-Thani and Minister of Electricity Ali Moheyeriq, its task was to encourage revolutionaries from that city to help the armed forces resolve the crisis in Sebha. For the Misrata militias this presents an opportunity to recover their damaged status and prestige following the Gargour incident.
Mustafa Balraas, a member of the Misrata revolutionary militias, told the Weekly that the revolutionaries had agreed to go to Sebha but on certain conditions. The most important was that the government must publicly admit, in a press conference, that there was no army in the country and that the “shields and brigades” of revolutionaries were legitimate agencies subordinate to the state.
Confirming that militia contingents from Misrata would head south, Suleiman Al-Faqih, speaker of the Misrata Shura Council, said that this council and the Misrata municipal council had agreed with the government delegation. He added that intervention in Sebha or other areas would be “carefully studied” and cautioned that his city — Misrata — “will not allow anyone to undermine Libyan national security or the stability of the state.”
Shortly after the GNC declared a state of emergency Saturday, Ministry of Defence spokesman Abdel-Razek Al-Shabahi told reporters that military aircraft had undertaken reconnaissance flights in the south and then dealt with the required targets.
Meanwhile, in a sudden and alarming development, green flags of the Gaddafi regime were sighted in some areas of Tripoli Saturday, confirming reports of the same phenomenon in areas of Sebha and some other cities of the south and west. The Ministry of Interior’s Supreme Security Committee intensified the deployment of army and security forces to protect the capital from any surprise actions on the part of affiliates of the former regime.

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