Foreign fighters add to threats in southern Libya, faced with power vacuum, rivalries

Tribal leaders said that the presence of “foreign fighters” fuelled the violence and threatened Libyan territorial unity.
March 18, 2018
A Tebu man stands alongside a pickup truck in the southern Libyan city of Sebha. (Reuters)
At breaking point. A Tebu man stands alongside a pickup truck in the southern Libyan city of Sebha. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Libyan military strongman Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, vying for control of southern Libya, ordered transnational African combatants to leave the region or face air strikes and shelling by tanks.

Fighters and migrants from Chad, Niger and Sudan have been drawn into the fighting in southern Libya between rival Libyan military factions and tribes. Tribe leaders in southern Libya and Libyan analysts said the vacuum caused by lack of central authority allowed the area to evolve from a nexus of smuggling, lawlessness and crime into a mix of antagonistic tribes that make the conflict even more intractable.

Fears of an escalation of violence in the south prompted Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and its rival, the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, to deploy forces in the region. The LNA has clashed with tribal militias and groups aligned with the Tripoli government over dominance of the south.

Cycles of violence have repeated in the region since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi by NATO-backed Islamist rebels in 2011, an uprising that left Libya reeling under warring militias and three governments.

The increased involvement of the foreign fighters prompted even more competition among rivals in the south.

“The Libyan National Army will use all the military force available on the land and the air to drive the foreign fighters if they do not leave the region and return to their home countries at the ultimatum’s end,” Haftar said.

The LNA initiated its “Law Enforcement” operation after the violence in Sabha by deploying additional troops, tanks and jet fighters. The government in Tripoli countered with a “Peace Harbingers” military operation to “restore security” in the south, said Mohamed al-Salak, the spokesman of the government led by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) issued a statement warning that the build-up in the south risked further escalation and called on all parties to work towards a ceasefire and “refrain from rhetoric that may inflame the situation.”

Tribal leaders said that the presence of “foreign fighters” fuelled the violence and threatened Libyan territorial unity.

“What is happening in Sabha and the whole south of Libya is an attempt to truncate part of the homeland and put it under the control of foreigners coming from across the border,” said Abdelhafid Youssef, a leader of the Awlad Suleiman tribe.

Libya’s Saharan south has traditionally been inhabited by two main non-Arab ethnic groups: the Tuareg and the Tebu. They had been outnumbered and dominated politically by a patchwork of Arab tribes, including the Gadhadhfa, Warfalla, Merghara, Awlad Suleiman, Fezzanis, Hassawna and Zuwayah.

Analysts said the leaders of the various groups vying for control of Libya were continuing a Qaddafi policy of manipulating tribal and ethnic divisions to reinforce their influence. They said statements by Haftar and other leaders would make no difference because there is no central government to create a sense of Libyan nationality and force out foreign fighters.

“Foreign fighters had been used by Qaddafi to destabilise governments in the Sahara-Sahel region and advance the goals of his policy in Africa,” said Tebu activist Ismail Bazanka. “Rivals, after Qaddafi’s demise, exploited the presence of those fighters to strengthen their positions in the conflict.”

The United Nations warned last year against the role of foreign fighters, including increased involvement of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, in the Libyan conflict.

“In addition, repeated attacks against individuals and property by foreign armed groups in the south of Libya have increased communities’ sense of vulnerability and distrust towards LNA and the Misrata Third Force,” the UN report stated.

Abdelhamid Zawi, a writer from southern Libya, said the main concern in the area is the “civil status register.” Rival factions were vying to add tribal members with similar systems of kinship from Chad, Niger and Sudan to increase their numbers and strengthen their positions.

“The most important battle now is the one over the protection of the civil status register from infiltration to avoid Libya’s population increasing suddenly to 10 million (from around 6 million currently),” said Zawi. “The main cause of the presence of the foreign fighters is the laxity and permissiveness of the Libyans in the south.”

Political analyst Ahmed Fitouri said: “The fighting and other violence in the south is part of the war between rival forces in northern Libya about the control of the power in Libya.”

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