THE Libyan government yesterday admitted it faces a national crisis amid an escalation of violence and militia rule.
Inter-tribal fighting in the largest Saharan town, Sabha, on Tuesday claimed 20 lives and left scores more injured. Similar clashes took place in another southern town, Kufra, earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the main eastern border crossing with Egypt remains under tribal militia control after it was seized at the weekend in protest at rampant smuggling by local officials.
Tripoli has also seen attacks. Militia from the mountain town of Zintan attacked the prestigious Rixos hotel, kidnapping and beating its manager.
The causes for the unrest are rooted in the explosive combination of a country awash with firearms and a weak and secretive central government. But the inability of Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) to deal with it, five months after the official end of the civil war, has cast doubt on its ability to secure a democratic transition.
Yesterday, deputy interior minister Omar al-Khadrawi said: “We came out of a very big crisis; weapons are widely spread across the country. Now all people in Libya have access to these weapons.”
The southern fighting is the most immediate problem: the battles of Sabha and Kufra have turned both towns into combat zones, pitting the Tobu ethnic group, who have lands stretching south into Chad and Niger, against pro-revolutionary forces.
In Sabha, battles erupted after pro-government militias captured a Tobu man accused of war crimes. Tobu militia then stormed the headquarters of the military council, only to be pushed back in further fighting.
Tripoli’s violence began when the Turkish manager of the five-star Rixos hotel told the leader of a militia from Zintan, 100 miles south, to pay a bill that had accumulated since September.
The militia leader shot-up the reception desk, then returned to the hotel with armed men who abducted the manager, beating him so badly he has lost the hearing in one ear. Only the intervention of Libya’s de-facto president, Mustafa Abdu Jalil, secured his release. But as a result, the Zintan militia, which controls Tripoli’s international airport, reneged on a promise to hand over security to government forces on Sunday, instead parading its armed vehicles at the airport entrance.
International flights continue to land in Tripoli, with no repeat of the suspension ordered in January after government units tried and failed to storm the airport.
But confidence in the government is at an all-time low.
Western businesses, seen as key to economic revival, are not returning. Regatta, a sprawling gated compound once home to expatriates, is three-quarters empty. One western businessman living there said companies had decided it was unsafe to send employees and their families back to Tripoli.
In a rare interview, Mr Jalil said he was “not satisfied” with the government, saying: “It is too slow in making decisions and is weak and lacks confidence in its decision making.”
Yet his administration seems like a rabbit in the headlights as violence erupts around it. The takeover of the Egyptian border went unchallenged since the government’s National Army – the only brigade upon which it can rely – is distrusted by most Libyans who see it as led by Gaddafi-era officers.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, authorities say they dare not arrest Islamist militia who desecrated Commonwealth war graves and were filmed on video later posted online.
In a sign of their growing self-confidence, Islamist elements were filmed parading jeeps with black al-Qaeda flags through the streets of the coastal city of Sirte.
Mr Jalil’s problem is that, while insecurity and lawlessness reigns, nothing else gets done. Wages go unpaid, reconstruction is patchy, and some cities, such as Benghazi and Misrata, are going their own way, holding city elections, independent of the government. Yet for the moment, the NTC seems powerless to act.