Militias: Clashes near Libya's Tunisia border

AP News
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Posted: Apr 02, 2012 7:01 AM
Militias: Clashes near Libya's Tunisia border

A Libyan police brigade moved to quell clashes that broke out between two rival towns on Monday, brokering a cease-fire and securing the release of hostages, a local tribal chief said.

The intervention by a force of ex-rebels answering to the country's Interior Ministry to stop fighting between two towns near the Tunisian border was an unusually quick response from the weak central government, which has been accused of moving too slowly to stop bloody local conflicts that have broken out in the wake of last year's ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The battle between Ragdalein and Zwara, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from the capital Tripoli, was the latest in a series of local rivalries that threatened to divide Libya along tribal and regional lines.

The fighting erupted after fighters from Ragdalein said they took 34 brigade men hostage from the neighboring town of Zwara on Sunday. Ragdalein spokesman Rami Kanaan said the men were returning from the border with Tunisia, where the Zwara brigade helps support newly-trained border guards.

He said the move came after months of abuses by the Zwara brigade, including the looting of property.

"Everyday they attack us, steal from us and it's becoming more frequent. We are fed up with that and so we took action and captured these men," Kanaan said.

The head of Zwara's local council, Abo-Bakr Taloa, said 21 of his men had been captured. In retaliation, he said, the Zwara brigade stopped three families from Ragdalein traveling along a main road and took them hostage hours later.

The conflict that evening escalated into battles involving automatic rifles and tanks, according to both sides. There was no immediate word of casualties.

Zwara tribal leader Eissa al-Haneezy said that the Interior Ministry's force, known as the Supreme Security Committee, traveled from the capital Tripoli to western Libya on Monday to quell the violence.

Zwara, a town of 45,000 people, is less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from Ragdalein, which is double that in population.

The conflict is one of many local rivalries stemming from Gadhafi's 40 years of divide-and-rule policies and the eight-month civil war that eventually overthrew him.

Zwara residents were quick to join the uprising last year that led to the capture and killing of Gadhafi in October. The Berber Amazigh tribe there complained of discrimination under Gadhafi, saying his regime often neglected them and barred them from high-level posts.

Ragdalein, whose residents are mostly Arab tribes, was a hub for Gadhafi loyalists and was heavily armed by his regime during the country's civil war.

Residents of Zwara, themselves well armed by rebels during the uprising, say that Ragdalein's fighters raped women, looted property and attacked residents last year for opposing Gadhafi's regime. Zwara's residents say they are now being blocked by Ragdalein's tribes from reaching their farms south of the city.

Several such rivalries have erupted into violence in the last year. Fighting in the remote desert oasis of Sabha between Arab tribes and an anti-Gadhafi African tribe killed around 150 people and left hundreds displaced last week.