Reports emerged late this week of a rare outbreak of political violence in a remote corner of Libya, one of the world's more secretive nations.
According to human rights organizations and a Libyan opposition group, security forces have been battling rebels for five days in Kufrah, which is among a cluster of oasis towns in the country's southeast. The fighting has left at least 11 dead, said the rights groups, which are in touch with sources in Libya.
By Friday the fighting appeared to have come to a halt, with rebels and government troops taking up positions around the town and most observers anticipating further clashes.
"The situation is very critical," said a resident of the town reached by telephone Friday who declined to identify himself because of security concerns. "The whole town is in disarray."
The clashes involved members of the Tabu tribe and erupted after the Libyan government enforced what some considered discriminatory laws against the group, said Haytham Manna, spokesman of the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights. He said that all the dead were civilians and that at least 40 people were injured in the clashes.
"The city is totally under siege by the security forces," he said. "There is a lack of medical and other basic services."
After decades as an international pariah, Libya recently mended relations with the West, including the United States, despite lingering worries about the country's human rights record. Officials in the capital, Tripoli, could not be reached for comment Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. A spokesman for the Libyan Embassy in Paris reached by telephone told The Times, "We have nothing to say" about the clashes in Kufrah.
The Tabu tribe is one of Libya's largest. Its members are darker skinned than most Arabs and live near the borders of Sudan and Chad.
Tensions between the government in Tripoli and Tabu tribesmen began in December when the government stripped them of their citizenship and accused their leaders of siding with Chad, a rival of Libya. Recently, some government officials urged the Tabus to depart for Chad.
Clashes began Monday when tribesmen set fire to a local government office to protest rules that prevented their children from attending schools and collecting food rations, Manna said.
The fighting escalated when the government dispatched military units and helicopters from the capital to quell the rebellion, said Manna, who drew information from lawyers, scholars and activists in Libya.
Observers say the humanitarian situation is deteriorating.
"There is a serious lack of food," Issa Abdul Majid Mansour, who leads the Libyan Tabu Salvation Front, said in a phone interview from Norway, where he lives. "Stores are closed. The wounded are in their homes without proper treatment. There are some shops that are burned down. Reporters and medics cannot reach the area of the conflict."
Manna said the region's remoteness was encouraging security forces to act with impunity.
"The danger on the central government is minimal because the tribe in the south is isolated," he said. "Libya is capable of isolating them from the rest of the world because of its good recent connections with the West."