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Spectre of tribal violence hangs over Libya's fragile recovery

Inability of interim government to stop wave of revenge attacks angers Libyans

Down the rubble
Image Credit: AP
Counter clockwise from left: Revolutionaries trample on a golden replica of Muammar Gaddafi’s head inside theBab Al Aziziya complex in Tripoli. A family walks through a Tripoli street. A revolutionary prays as he stands on themonument inside the complex.
Gulf News

Tripoli:  Libya is plunging into a cycle of tribal violence and retribution which, if left unchecked, could undermine the authority of its new leaders, spur new forms of insurgency and throw the country back into chaos.

More than a week after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, anger is on the boil again with what many Libyans see as the inability of the interim government to rein in its brigades and stop a wave of revenge attacks.

Retribution is a byproduct of wars the world over, but Libya is awash with guns and still roamed by gangs of Gaddafi loyalists, meaning that an orgy of revenge could easily shatter its fragile peace and derail attempts to rebuild.

People's hearts

Analysts say the only way to avert the scenario is to win people's hearts and minds by disarming regional militias, providing strong guarantees of security, and moving tribal disputes into a legal sphere.

Easier said than done.

As post-Gaddafi euphoria fades, trouble already appears to be brewing in parts of Libya where disgruntled and armed civilians are growing increasingly suspicious of the National Transitional Council and its ability to bring law and order.

"I've seen a lot of revolutions. This is not a revolution, this is chaos," said Ali Mohammad, a 57-year-old former soldier in Gaddafi's army.

"It's all about personal acts of revenge. If there is no stability and security, people will turn against the council."

Observers say that, for now, Gaddafi loyalists have no hope of reinstalling the dictator's regime, with his armed forces crushed and most of his family either in exile or dead.

Yet in many cities in Libya's central and western parts — which, unlike the more rebellious east, have been in Gaddafi's fold until recently — the atmosphere is bitter.

In one town 120km southwest of Tripoli, locals said several people had been killed in the past week in raids by former rebel brigades from other tribes seeking revenge against men they believed had fought on Gaddafi's side.

Southeast of Tripoli, in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid, tribesmen from the powerful Warfalla tribe said their men were already trying to organise themselves into an insurgent movement.

In Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, the US-based Human Rights Watch has urged the NTC to investigate dozens of decaying bodies discovered shortly after he was killed.

Residents displaced

On Sunday, the rights group accused militias from the coastal city of Misrata of "terrorising" displaced residents of the nearby town of Tawarga, in retribution for the townspeople's alleged collaboration in atrocities committed by Gaddafi forces.

"Revenge against the people from Tawarga, whatever the accusations against them, undermines the goal of the Libyan revolution," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director.

These early signs may be part of the inevitable chaos that follows the end of any conflict. Yet they are adding fuel to pro-Gaddafi feelings at a time when people are waiting for the NTC to show signs of strong leadership.

"With so many different and potentially destabilising actors emerging, the NTC's challenge of bringing about security is immense," Henry Wilkinson, associate director of the Janusian risk advisory group, wrote in a report.

"There is ... a clear risk that unless the NTC can make tangible progress, a cycle of instability may take hold."

The NTC has ordered its forces to refrain from looting and revenge attacks, and has played down any risks of insurgency.

"We are in complete harmony. ... If there has been anything outside the law, there will be an investigation," said Deputy Defence Minister Fawzi Abu Katif.

"We have been following some [pro-Gaddafi] groups. We are working ... to discover how big they are. But after Gaddafi's death most of them have been dissolved. The death of Gaddafi changes everything. We don't think they constitute any threat."

The cycle of retribution appears already to have started. The town of al Jemel, a scattering of sandy homes in the palm-studded desert southwest of Tripoli, is one example.

Residents said brigades from faraway Misrata had appeared at their doorstep a week ago, breaking into people's homes and looking for Gaddafi loyalists.

Dozens of young men have disappeared and four have been killed in detention, said Al Koni Salem Mohammad, the uncle of one of those killed.

Speaking at a mourning ceremony on the edge of town, he shook with grief as he showed the death certificate listing "electric shocks" as a cause of death. He said the body had been dumped outside the detention centre with its tongue and genitals cut off.

"After all this, our children and the children of our children will never be with this revolution," he said, bursting into tears and shaking his fist, as other men in traditional dress sat in the shade of a tent set up for the mourning period.

"If this does not stop there will be a reaction. Any build-up of pressure leads to an explosion ... There is a lot of anger. Doesn't the government have an army to handle this?"