Dozens of people have been killed since last week in clashes between rival tribes over control of territory in the far southeast of Libya, the tribes said on Thursday.
Violence broke out late last week in the remote city of al--Kufra and has continued since, highlighting the challenge of policing the country’s sparsely populated desert.
Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) has struggled to assert its authority across the whole of Libya as rival regional militias and tribal groups jostle for power and resources following the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Local gunmen from the Zwai tribe have been clashing with fighters from the Tibu ethnic group led by Isa Abdel Majid, whom they accuse of attacking al-Kufra backed by mercenaries from Chad, according to a security official from the Zwai tribe.
“The situation is still complicated today. The Tibu attacked the city with mortars and there were snipers,” said Abdelbari Idriss, the security official from the Zwai tribe, adding that the Tibu had received reinforcements from other desert towns.
He said 15 people on his side had been killed and 45 injured.
“Thirteen were buried yesterday, two today,” he said.
However, the Tibu said they were the ones to come under attack.
Mohammed Laban, from the Tibu tribe and a representative of a citizen group in al-Kufra, said the death toll among the Tibu had reached 55 and more than 100 had been injured. He said the Tibu had asked the NTC for help.
“There is a crisis here. There are no doctors, there is no water. Shops are closed,” he said by telephone. “The number of injured is 117. We couldn’t get to the airport because it is under control of the Zwai and we would like the NTC to help by sending helicopters to take our injured to hospitals.”
It was not possible to independently verify the reports.
The Tibu are mainly found in Chad, but also inhabit parts of southern Libya, Sudan and Niger, often crisscrossing unmarked desert borders. Abdel Majid’s men supported the Libyan rebels during the uprising last year that ousted Qaddafi.
“We are being attacked because they say we are not Libyan, but we are Libyan,” al-Kufra resident Mohammed Sanussi said.
He said the Zwai were getting reinforcements from other areas.
Mohammed al-Alagy, head of Libya’s freedom and human rights council, said his group was looking into the violence.
“After that, we will transfer the report to the NTC to let them take the necessary steps,” he told reporters.
In al-Kufra, tribal ties are far more powerful than they are on the country’s Mediterranean seaboard. A tribal rebellion in 2009 was suppressed only after Qaddafi sent in helicopter gunships. The remote region is also a hub for smugglers taking advantage of the lawless borders of sub-Saharan Africa.
The province surrounding al-Kufra is Libya’s largest and straddles the borders of Sudan and Chad. The roads in the region are poor and some reports said the airport was out of use because of the fighting, possibly holding up any aid.