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Terrorism & Security

Libya militias clash in longest sustained fighting since Qaddafi's fall

In Libya, militia clashes around Tripoli and elsewhere are hindering government attempts to build democratic structures and civil society.

By Staff writer / November 14, 2011

Fighters from Zawiya city fire a rocket towards the Warcfana tribe at the front line of the city, about 25 miles from Tripoli, Libya, November 12.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Libya's efforts at building a government and civil society after more than 40 years of autocratic rule are being hindered by clashes between rival militias, still armed from the violent rebellion that ousted former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Militias from the town of Zawiya and the tribal area of Warshefana, both in the vicinity of Tripoli, have clashed for the past four days – the longest sustained fighting since Mr. Qaddafi's fall last month. At least six people were killed, the Associated Press reports. In Tripoli, where the police force does not yet have control of the whole city, brigades from different tribes and regions remain in control of sections of the city, according to the Washington Post.

A fighter from Zawiyah told the Washington Post there are "remnants of Qaddafi people among them," referring to the Warshefana tribe. Some of the Zawiyah fighters believe that Saif al-Islam, the only member of the Qaddafi family who remains at large, is hiding in the area.

Interim leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said Sunday that the National Transitional Council intends to disarm the many militias still roaming the country and skirmishing with each other, but that first the government needs to be able to offer alternatives – jobs, education, and training, the Associated Press reports.

There have also been clashes in Tripoli between fighters from the coastal city of Misurata, which endured a months-long siege by Qaddafi's army during the war, and the mountain town of Zintan, which has developed a particularly bad reputation for fighting and stealing. Zintanis have also clashed with local Tripoli brigades.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported from Tripoli, Misuratas fighters feel "accountable to no one, not even the country's interim government," because of how much they suffered during the siege. More than 1,000 people were killed.

They say they’ve earned the right to do what they like, and are showing some disturbing tendencies distinctly at odds with the pro-democracy aspirations voiced by Libyans, who have already paid dearly for Mr. Qaddafi’s overthrow.

For instance, the men from Misurata have unilaterally declared that the inhabitants of Tawargha, a mostly black neighboring city where many people stayed loyal to Qaddafi, will not be allowed to return. Fighters from Misurata have chased the residents of Tawargha all over Libya, arresting them in refugee camps and jailing them in Misurata. Last week, they began burning houses in Tawargha to make sure that nobody returns.

Efforts to persuade militias to disarm have so far been mostly futile, the Monitor reports. Many fighters say they don't mind giving up their weapons, but can't do it unless rival militias agree to as well, creating a never-ending cycle of militias waiting for each other to make the first move. Even the Jadu Brigade, which has a reputation for being more respectful of authority than most of the militias, and more reluctant to turn to violence, has resisted.

“It’s not that we don’t want to,” says [Omar] Dougha [of the Jadu Brigade], on his bed in one of the designer bungalows in the Rigatta compound [a luxury beachfront compound in Tripoli].

Jadu and Zintan are close neighbors in the western mountains and also in Tripoli, where they each control half the beachfront compound. … The problem, says Dougha, “is that we can’t disarm unless Zintan does the same.”

Jadu is a Berber town and Zintan is Arab. Three generations ago, Zintan fighters chased Jadu fighters from the area until they were able to fight their way back.

“We fought as brothers against Qaddafi, but we don’t entirely trust them. Zintan with heavy weapons and Jadu without weapons is simply not an option,” says Dougha.

A Western official told the Washington Post that the infighting raises concerns that there is no common goal in Libya now that Qaddafi is gone.

“I am now less confident that everyone is on the same mission,” he said. “There are Misuratans, the Tripoli brigades and Zintanis in Tripoli. The leaders in Tripoli are very forgiving of the Misuratans — they see them as heroes. But they perceive the Zintanis as a problem.”

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