By Michel Cousins
There have been increasingly bitter clashes in the southern Libyan city of Sebha between the Tebu community and a military unit composed largely of members of the major Arab tribe in the area, Awlad Suleiman, and which is linked to the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
There are no reliable figures on casualties but fighting has intensified recently, notably in Sebha’s Tayuri district, which is home to both Tebu and Tuareg communities worried they could be sucked into the conflict. Municipal authorities opened two schools to provide shelter to more than 1,200 people who fled from Tayuri.
Since the toppling of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, inter-communal violence, as well as crimes such as kidnappings and robberies, have soared in Sebha.
There were “wars” in 2012 and 2014 between the Tebus and Awlad Suleiman, as well as numerous brief clashes and fighting between Awlad Suleiman and the Qaddadfa tribe.
There was fighting in the city between the Tebus and the Tuareg, part of a wider regional conflict between them. A peace deal between them, mediated by Qatar in 2015, was implemented last year. A deal between the Tebu and Awlad Suleiman, mediated by Italy and Presidency Council member Abdulsalam Kajman, was sealed in Rome in March 2017.
Now, however, the deals seem to be in tatters, destabilising what little security exists in southern Libya, an area where there is widespread sympathy for the Qaddafi regime and where, recent reports said, the Islamic State is making inroads.
Fighting between the Sixth Force, the military unit of Awlad Suleiman, and the Tebus started over a common occurrence in the crime-troubled city — a shooting. Usually, it would have been contained; however, the deep hostility between the two sides caused the incident to spiral into what is being referred to locally as the “Third Awlad Suleiman-Tebu War.”
Efforts to end the fighting have made matters worse. Mediators from eastern Libya were accused of using their position to bring the Sixth Force and the Sebha area under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).
The eastern elders tried to win over the Awlad Suleiman tribe by offering the Sixth Force legitimacy as an LNA unit, after which the LNA announced the force was under its control.
Awlad Suleiman rejected this, however, saying the force remained under the control of the Defence Ministry in Tripoli. In response, the LNA announced it replaced the force’s leader with his deputy. Nothing, however, had changed: Ahmed al-Ataibi remains in charge.
There has been talk in Tripoli about Tebus from Chad invading to take over Sebha. The Sarraj government issued a statement that claimed mercenaries attacked the Sixth Force and warned that Libya’s sovereignty was at stake.
There are certainly Tebus from Chad involved in and around Sebha, as well as local Tebus, but Tripoli’s support for the Sixth Force and attempts by the LNA to bring the force to its side increased Tebu fears that they are being pushed out of the area. They say Tripoli and Benghazi are biased towards Awlad Suleiman and warn of further unspecified action if there is no change.
Political activists in southern Libya said the issue was also “about money.”
“Neither the Tebus nor the Sixth Force are really interested in Haftar or Sarraj. They are interested in who is going to pay them,” one analyst said.
Additionally, there is the matter of compensation. After the Awlad Suleiman-Tebu war in 2015, mediation efforts that resulted in an agreement in March 2017 stated that both sides would be compensated by the Libyan state. The southern activists said the bulk of the money has not been paid, which is a source of friction between the two sides.
There is also the checkpoint 17km south of Sebha, manned by Tebu fighters, many Chadian. Tebus say that everything to the south of it is Tebu territory and that the checkpoint is necessary to control entry into it but it is also a source of revenue. Goods trucks and many other vehicles passing through are required to pay 50-100 dinars ($37-$75) — sometimes more — to guards.
Tebu forces also control the Sebha airport, which is closed but which the local municipality and most people in Sebha want to reopen. The local municipality wants the Tebus out but they have no intention of going. They claim they need to remain at the airport to protect the nearby Tayuri district.
The conflict is not going to go away. The divisions run deep. Other Arab tribes in the region have stayed on the sidelines but the Awlad Suleiman are reported to be building alliances with other tribes in the area — the Magarha, the Hassauna and possibly even the Qaddadfa, which had supported the Tebu, having a common enemy in Awlad Suleiman.
In this inflammatory situation, the rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi is turning a local drama into a national crisis.
Michel Cousins is the editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald.