By Jamal Adel & Tom Westcott
Haftar’s troops are trying diplomatic methods to seize al-Feel, but developments could turn violent soon.
Rival military forces stand deadlocked in Libya’s south following advances made by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar.
Having peacefully taken control of major southern oil field Sharara on Monday, local sources say the LNA – which is loyal to a government based in Libya’s east – now has its sights set on a second, al-Feel.
The LNA is said to be negotiating with senior figures from the local Tebu people in an attempt to peacefully take over the oil field, which has been held by the tribe’s militias since 2013.
LNA troops stationed at Ghadduwah oasis, lying between key southern towns of Murzuq and Sebha, are now engaged in a military standoff against Tebu militias allied with the Tripoli-based UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
The militias are holding defence lines they say are protecting Murzuq from further LNA military advances. Clashes were reported as ongoing on Wednesday.
“Haftar is besieging the south. We have dozens of wounded here who are in urgent need of proper medical care but we can’t fly them to Tripoli because Haftar has banned all flights in and out of the south,” Murzuq tribal elder Allahuza Youssif Mahmoud told Middle East Eye.
The controversial no-fly zone imposed on southern Libya over the weekend by the eastern government has also prevented vital medical supplies reaching Murzuq’s already overstretched and under-equipped hospital, he said.
Negotiations are also currently deadlocked, with the main sticking point for the Tebu being the presence of controversial fighting units, in particular Brigade 128, among the LNA’s southern forces.
Led by Major Hassan Matoug al-Zadma, from the Arab Awlad Suliman tribe, a long standing foe of the Tebu, Brigade 128 allegedly also now includes fighters from the Arab Zwai tribe, at the heart of another longstanding local Tebu rivalry.
Tebu leaders fear fighters from these two southern Arab tribes will use LNA advances as a cover to settle longstanding vendettas.
The accusation that Haftar has boosted his ranks with Sudanese mercenaries from Darfur is further stalling negotiations.
“We refuse to comply with Haftar’s military operation because he is using our rival tribes and Sudanese mercenaries to forcibly break into our town,” said Mahmoud.
“Currently, the LNA is seeking negotiations via mediators, but our foremost condition is that Haftar withdraws his local units affiliated with the LNA, especially those from rival tribes and Sudan. Only then will we consider serious negotiations.”
A local source has told MEE that LNA special forces commander Wanis Bukhamada arrived in Sebha on Wednesday to lead negotiations.
Bukhamada is held in high regard in the south for successfully defusing tensions between Tebu and Awlad Suliman tribes in 2014.
LNA spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Mismari said a high-level military delegation had arrived in the south “to convey a message from Haftar to the residents of the south”.
Mismari called on key southern tribes – Tebu, Tuareg and Awlad Suliman – to ignore “misleading media”, insisting that LNA military operations were not an act of aggression but were intended to secure the south, which has languished outside any government control for years.
On Wednesday, the GNA announced that, with its cooperation, the US-led coalition had “raided” an al-Qaeda site in the southern town of Ubari. Africom, the United States’ military force in Africa, denied involvement.
This strategic town is currently held by Tuareg militias with mixed political allegiances, mostly now siding with the LNA, and Tebu militias mostly loyal to the GNA.
Ubari’s Brigade 117, a peacekeeping force of indigenous Hassawna tribe members installed in the town after a Tebu-Tuareg war in Ubari ended in 2015, has pledged allegiance to the LNA.
A source in Murzuq said he doubted LNA negotiations to peacefully take control of Tebu areas in the south would be successful.
“It really depends on the fighters, rather than the tribal elders [who are involved in negotiations], and the young fighters say they will refuse to let LNA forces enter Murzuq,” he said.
On Monday, LNA forces took control of Sharara oil field, after successfully negotiating a handover by the mostly Tuareg Brigade 30, which had secured it since 2017.
Attempts by the rival GNA to secure dominance over the oil field by sending Gaddafi-era Tuareg commander Ali Kanna to hold talks with Brigade 30 over the weekend appear to have failed.
The Tebu had hoped to secure their southern territory by forging an alliance with Tuareg under Kanna to hold back LNA advances, but the handover of Sharara was a major setback. Most Tuareg brigades in Ubari pledged allegiance to the LNA earlier this week.
“The Tebu feel betrayed. We believe Tuareg brigades loyal to rival governments negotiated, and Brigade 30 felt it was better to hand over the oil field to another Tuareg tribe rather than fight each other,” Murzuq Ahmed, a senior member of the Tebu community, told MEE.
Kanna’s failure to secure full allegiance of Tuareg brigades, followed by the swift loss of Sharara through negotiations rather than military action, underscores ongoing issues faced by the GNA which, now in its third year, has yet to successfully assert any meaningful control beyond Tripoli.
Humanitarian disaster looms in south
The military escalation in the south threatens to bring with it a humanitarian disaster in a region of Libya which has suffered from years of comprehensive neglect.
“The humanitarian situation is very bad inside the town. We are suffering from extreme shortages of food, medicine supplies, children’s milk and insulin for diabetics,” Murzuq municipal council member Ibrahim Omar Saleh told MEE.
Saleh pleaded with the GNA and international community to send humanitarian aid to the south.
“We have received tens of displaced families who fled from Ghadduwah to Murzuq during military operations, and we urge the GNA, UNSMIL [the United Nations Support Mission in Libya] and the international community to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the town and prevent further deterioration,” he said.
The United Nations, however, has largely restricted its operations to coastal Libya since 2014 and, while the no-fly zone remains in place and while the LNA controls the main land route to the south, it is hard to see who will respond to his plea or how aid could even be delivered.
UNSMIL released a statement reminding “all parties of their obligations to guarantee the protection of civilians and the country’s resources… by avoiding targeting economic facilities and putting civilians in harm’s way, under any pretext”.
Rahma Abubaker Ali – one of five Tebu MPs to have suspended their membership in Libya’s eastern parliament in protest at recent violence in the south – told MEE that a civil war in Libya’s south was looking increasingly inevitable.
Ahmed, the senior Tebu, said forces allied to the GNA from Libya’s coastal and western towns of Misrata, Zintan, Zawiya and Ghariyan had pledged to support military operations to curb the forces’ advances further south, but only if and when the Tebu could beat them back to Sebha.
LNA forces are currently 65km south of Sebha, at the Ghadduwah Oasis, and, local sources say, have been sending large military reinforcements to Sebha.
War on south final insult to Tebu
LNA advances into the south are viewed by many Tebu as a final insult.
Marginalised under Muammar Gaddafi, the indigenous Saharan tribe sided with rebels in the 2011 uprising that overthrew the autocrat’s rule, hoping to regain rights they hadn’t been granted for decades.
Instead, they have mostly seen those rights eroded still further, as Libya’s chaos has pitted tribes, regions and cities against one another.
As successive rival governments attempted to control Libya’s coastal cities and oil facilities, Libya’s sprawling southern desert was largely ignored, leaving Saharan tribes, such as the Tebu and Tuareg, to fend for themselves.
MP Abubaker Ali described LNA advances as the latest example of a string of human rights abuses, marginalisation and injustice towards the Tebu.
“The situation in the south is very bad, and the Tebu have been defending their territory from attackers [LNA forces],” she said.
“To resolve these problems, the LNA must stop attacking the Tebu, under the umbrella of legitimacy.”
She added that there could be “no light ahead for Libya’s future” until the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities – Tebu, Tuareg and Amazigh – were included in Libya’s proposed new constitution.
Eight years after the 2011 uprising, Libya’s new constitution remains only in a draft form, a version which many members of Libya’s ethnic minorities deem unacceptable.