Ethnic Berbers and Arab militiamen battle in western Libya

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REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Rival militias from western Libya clashed Wednesday in the coastal town of Zuwara for a fourth consecutive day, with scores of people cut down in a hail of anti-aircraft and mortar fire that the country’s interim authorities appear powerless to contain.

The fighting, pitting Zuwara’s ethnic Berbers against Arab militiamen from the neighboring cities of al-Jumail and Regdalin, highlights the extent to which tensions from last year’s war persist despite the fall of longtime leader Moammar Kadafi.


Zuwarans quickly joined the opposition insurgents last year, receiving training in Tunisian camps, while residents of Regdalin fought for Kadafi. Tensions between the two camps have remained strained since, with both sides alleging the other committed serious abuses while carefully guarding their territory.

Twenty-two people, including women and children, have been killed in the current fighting, which reportedly was sparked Sunday by an accidental shooting of a Regdalin resident by Zuwaran game hunters and quickly evolved into full-blown warfare after Zuwaran militiamen were taken hostage.

A small contingent of soldiers were deployed Monday to Zuwara, about 70 miles west of the capital, Tripoli. The troops quickly drew fire and appeared hapless in the face of the onslaught.

“The government forces are doing nothing; they are just hiding,” Ayoub Sufyan, a staff member with Zuwara’s local council, said in a telephone interview. “It is just us against them. We are facing a lot of Kadafi loyalists.”

The violence represents yet another challenge to the beleaguered interim government, which is seen as increasingly unable to cope with the pressure of administering the volatile country torn along tribal, political and ethnic lines.

In a sign of powerlessness, Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Aal asked that “the two sides to restrain themselves ... because there will be no winner in this battle,” according to news agency reports.
The transitional government’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a cease-fire have yet to bring any results as fears mount of further violence.

Speaking by telephone from Zuwara’s main hospital, 58-year-od Essa Hamisi, from a Zuwaran human rights group, said heavy shelling was continuing into the night.

“There are a lot of casualties now, which is not going to make it easy for the fighting to stop,” he said. “People are very angry and frightened. We’ve had 47 injuries and three deaths today; eight deaths and 105 injured yesterday.”

Since the fall of Kadafi, Libya has split into a series of fiefdoms in which heavily-armed militias, largely unaccountable and livid for retribution, have become the law of the land. Calls for federalism have increased and efforts to draw militiamen into the armed forces have met scant success.

Meanwhile, suspected Kadafi loyalists have largely been barred from the emerging political order, face routine harassment and frequent violence. Those acts of discrimination further widen divisions in the country and may well cement permanent polarization between the two camps, rendering much-needed reconciliation impossible.

Further underscoring the nation’s instability, inter-tribal violence in the southern town of Sabha has escalated the past week, leaving about 150 people dead.


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-- Glen Johnson