Armed clashes intensify in divided Tripoli


Fighters from the western town of Zawiyah prepare a rocket before heading toward clashes with the militia of the Wershifanna tribe, outside the Libyan capital of Tripoli, on Nov. 12, 2011. (Alice Fordham/ The Washington Post)
November 12, 2011

Escalating clashes between militia groups near Tripoli have killed several fighters over three days, amid growing concerns about rivalries between the heavily armed rebels who control overlapping areas in and around the Libyan capital.

“There is a big fight now, a new front,” said a fighter from the western city of Zawiyah, who was positioning a rocket on a flatbed truck at the side of the main road 16 miles west of Tripoli. “We are fighting the Wershifanna tribe. There are remnants of Gaddafi people among them.”

More than 100 other fighters from Zawiyah were manning checkpoints and loading up trucks with heavy weaponry before heading to the Hashan area, about a mile away, where the Wershifanna tribal fighters are the dominant force. Some said they believed ousted leader Moammar Gaddafi’s favored son Saif al-Islam was hiding in the area.

Khalid Qessab, a Zawiyah militia commander, said that three fighters under his command had died in battles that began Saturday morning and two the previous day. Local leaders said that at least three fighters died Thursday.

The fighting was the most recent in a string of deadly confrontations among those who fought to overthrow Gaddafi’s government and still have ready access to weapons. In Tripoli, where the police force is not fully functioning, brigades from a variety of tribes and regions control different parts of the city.

Violence broke out two weeks ago when fighters from the city of Misurata and the mountain town of Zintan attempted to settle old scores at Tripoli’s central hospital. There have also been at least three shootouts between a local Tripoli brigade in the upmarket Hay al-Andalus district and a group of Zintanis who have taken up residence in the plush Regatta compound where Gaddafi’s cronies used to live.

“As far as we know, most of the problems with the Zintanis are with young, drunk men,” said Khaled al-Shimani, at the Hay al-Andalus headquarters. “But these problems start small and get big.”

“I am now less confident that everyone is on the same mission,” said one Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There are Misuratans, the Tripoli brigades and Zintanis in Tripoli. The leaders in Tripoli are very forgiving of the Misuratans — they see them as heroes. But they perceive the Zintanis as a problem.”

The fighting continues despite a concerted effort to reconcile the battling factions by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chair of the Transitional National Council. On Saturday morning, Abdel Jalil brought together senior figures from Zawiyah and from the Wershifanna tribe to discuss a reconciliation, according to several people present.

Speaking after the session at the Islamic Call center, Abdullah Gzema, a council member from Zawiyah, described the problems as “very minor.”

“We discussed how people will go over these problems and design the future peacefully,” he said, adding that a smaller group planned to meet Sunday.

But others said that although the fighters causing the trouble were a minority, it would be impossible to control them until the militias are disarmed — a process that is not set to start until the new interim prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, names a cabinet.

“I consider the meeting to be a great failure,” said Ahmed Saleh, a senior Wershifanna figure who complained that the Zawiyah fighters were trying to expand their territory. “I hope there will not be more fighting, but I expect there will be.”

Council members and others said that Abdel Jalil had mediated at least two other clashes, between other rebel groups, recently.

Abdel Jalil’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a representative of the council’s executive office, Siraj al-Badri, said that security was the government’s absolute priority.

“I don’t think that clashes are a big issue. We expect this,” he said. “People have different opinions, and they are armed. Once the government is formed, it will focus on collecting the weapons and then the clashes will die down.”

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