At least seven people have been killed in clashes between armed men and residents of a Libyan town on the border with Algeria, officials said, underlining the insecurity that still plagues the country one month before elections.
“There were clashes in the city of Ghadames,” Nasser al-Manaa, Libya’s government spokesman said on Wednesday.
“The number of people killed is seven,” Manaa said, adding that more than 20 were wounded in clashes that erupted early in the day in the southern oasis town 600km from the capital Tripoli.
Six of the raiders were killed along with a resident of Ghadames, the AFP news agency reported. That toll was confirmed by a local medical official.
Manaa, who did not identify the assailants, said military forces had entered the city and brought the situation under control. The health ministry, for its part, was providing emergency assistance.
Tension had been building for days between locals and Tuareg tribesmen – nomads who roam the desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbours, an official at Ghadames local council said.
Ghadames officials said the attackers belonged to the Tuareg community.
However, a senior military official excluded the possibility of foreigners entering the country and stirring up the unrest.
“We are not aware of the entry of any external party,” army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi told AFP, pointing to regular air patrols over the area.
The fighting erupted over control of a checkpoint on the edge of Ghadames on a desert route often used for smuggling,
officials told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
Ghadames, which is also known as the “Pearl of the Desert,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Roman ruins close to Libya’s borders with Algeria and Tunisia.
The Tuareg have historically roamed over vast tracts of the southern Sahara and control smuggling routes criss-crossing the Sahel region.
Libya’s interim rulers have struggled to impose their will on the vast country’s often fractious tribal groups since last year’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
Many Tuaregs backed Gaddafi during the fighting because he supported their rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger in the 1970s and later allowed them to settle in southern Libya.
The tribe is important to regional security because it has huge influence in the empty desert expanses which are used
by drug traffickers and Islamist militants.
Libya is set to hold elections for a national assembly on June 19, the first free polls since the war last year.
The vote will distribute power among competing regions and tribes and pave the way for a new constitution.