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African securityLibyan factions, outside powers use indigenous southwest Libya in proxy war
Since September last year, a bloody war has been raging between the Tuareg and Tebu, two indigenous tribes in the remote Saharan oasis town of Ubari, in Libya’s rich southern oil fields near Libya’s border with Algeria, Niger, and Chad. Each side is supported by different Libyan factions and outside forces, all vying for control of the mineral-rich and politically volatile area. As the United States and Europe grow more concerned about the growing presence of ISIS in Libya, they have begun to pay more attention to the war between the Tuareg and Tebu and the potential it offers for ISIS for more mischief.
Since September last year, a bloody war has been raging between the Tuareg and Tebu, two indigenous tribes in the remote Saharan oasis town of Ubari, in Libya’s rich southern oil fields near Libya’s border with Algeria, Niger, and Chad.
Each side is supported by different Libyan factions and outside forces, all vying for control of the mineral-rich and politically volatile area.
Observers say that the 10-months was has so far claimed hundreds of lives and forced most of the region’s Tuareg and Arab families, and some Tebu families, to flee their homes. Ubari, once a town of about 35,000 residents, is now a ghost town.
Ghat, a Tuareg town located nearly 300km southwest of Ubari, near the Algerian border. Ghat and its resident s have played an important role in Libya in the last four decades: Former dictator Muammar Gaddafi relied almost exclusively on recruits from Ghat as his body guards, and recruited thousands of young men from Ghat to serve in Libya’s army and intelligence services. The Tuareg straddle the borders of Libya, Algeria, Niger, and Mali, and Qaddafi bought the loyalty of the Tuareg, including those from neighboring countries, by promising them a Libyan sanctuary, jobs, and rights.
Al Jazeera reports that many Tuareg bitterly note, however, that that many of the former dictator’s promises have not been fulfilled.
After Qaddafi was removed and killed in November 2011, many Tuareg soldiers from Mali returned to their homes in northern Mali, and in March 2012 rebelled against the central government in Bamako, declaring northern Mali to be the independent republic of Azawad. The break-away Azawad was soon taken over by the Islamist Ansar Dine movement, and in January 2013, France sent an expeditionary force to evict the
While the Tuareg remained loyal to Qaddafi until he was toppled, the Tebu tribe supported the anti-Qaddafi rebels in the hope of having better life under a new regime.
The pre-Qaddafi-removal divisions between the Tuareg and Tebu are reflected in the support the receive from different Libyan factions today.
Since the end of the Qaddafi reign in late 2011, Libya has not been functioning as a unitary state. Since August last year, Libya has had two governments, each with its own parliament and army. The government in Tripoli is controlled by the Islamist Libyan Dawn coalition, supported by the powerful militias from the western coastal town of Misarta, and is recognized only by Turkey and Qatar. The internationally recognized government – which was chased out by Dawn of Tripoli last August – sits in the towns of Tobruk and Beida in east Libya.
The Libyan Dawn government in Tripoli and the Misartan militias – which have a presence in the southwestern town of Sebha, where they guard Libya’s second-largest oil field at Sharara on behalf of the Tripoli government — support the Tuareg. The Misrata militias provide medical aid and gasoline to Tuareg fighters, while Tripoli’s defense ministry is said to provide financial backing and light arms.
The internationally recognized government based in Tobruk and Beida, along with the powerful forces of General Khalifa Haftar, are supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and back the Tebu. While all the Tebu are aligned with the internationally recognized government, the Tuareg community is split between the two governments.
As the United States and Europe grow more concerned about the growing presence of ISIS in Libya, they have begun to pay more attention to the war between the Tuareg and Tebu and the potential it offers for ISIS for more mischief.
European efforts to mediate the conflict have run into trouble because of the Tuareg historical suspicion of the French. Tuareg accuse the French of reneging on their promise from sixty years ago to create a Tuareg state – and only two-and-half years ago, between January and March 2013, French forces snuffed yet another attempt by the Tuareg – the fourth since 1962 – to create an independent Taureg state.
After evicting the Islamists from break-away north Mali in March 2013 and reunifying the state, France, as part of its effort to increase its counterterrorism capabilities in North and West Africa, has built a large military base in north Niger, only 100 km (60 miles) from the Libyan border – and from the Tuareg town of Ubari. The French base is also home to a few dozen U.S. Army- and CIA-operated drones, which fly surveillance missions over the vast desert area.
The Tuareg haveanother reason to complain: Algeria, in an effort to prevent a spillover of violence from Libya, has significantly bolstered security along its border with Libya, effectively cutting off the Libyan Tuareg from their Algerian kin.