South Libya – In Libya’s southwest Saharan desert, near the vast el-Sharara oil field and the borders with Niger and Algeria, a fierce struggle for control of the small oasis town of Ubari and its surrounding area has dragged on since September.
This desert conflict illustrates the shift of tribal allegiances in the country’s post-revolution fight over resources and power, now cast within the larger national context of Libya’s two competing governments and their agendas as the country slides deeper into civil war.
“We are taking out dead bodies. Our challenge is how to get help inside the town, and to get people out,” Mahmoud al-Araby, head of the Red Crescent Society in Ubari, told Al Jazeera. Along with his volunteer emergency health staff, he has been exiled to the nearby town of al-Ghoraifa.
“We have brought out nine dead bodies so far,” he said. “And they were decomposed when we got them.”
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The battle of Ubari is between the historically semi-nomadic Tuareg and Tebu tribes, both indigenous to Libya’s southern desert, with kin stretched across neighbouring countries. Both peoples coexisted under a truce called “Midi-Midi” as they found themselves marginalised by Muammar Gaddafi’s favouritism towards Arab tribes.
During the 2011 revolution, many Tuareg fighters backed the regime, which had promised them rights and rewards upon victory, while the Tebu supported the rebellion. But Tuareg and Tebu guns were never turned on each other.
Today, the truce has been broken, with the tribes violently pitted against each other in Ubari. On the Libyan Tuareg side, their kin from countries such as war-ravaged Mali and groups like Ahmed al-Ansari have joined the fight, with support from the Misratan Libyan Dawn forces. Meanwhile, there are claims that Tebu from Chad have joined the Libyan Tebu, which has support from the Libyan Dignity government in Tobruk, based in the far northeast.
Misrata, currently in control of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), has a military presence now stretching through Libya’s west and to the south. With the Misratans changing their alliance to the Tuareg, there are accusations that external forces with their own larger motives are at play. On November 5, local Tuareg fighters, backed by Misratan forces, wrested control of Libya’s largest operational oil field, el-Sharara, from the Zintan and Tebu security guards who had patrolled the perimeter over the past three years. The Spanish consortium Repsol operates from there.
Armed Tuareg militias stormed the facility. They looted equipment, they fired shots, they were intimidating towards staff, and the facility subsequently closed because of the attack. They then left in a number of vehicles and drove towards the Algerian border. Some members returned, and the Misratan 'Third Force' claimed they had control of the Sharara facility.
“Armed Tuareg militias stormed the facility. They looted equipment, they fired shots, they were intimidating towards staff, and the facility subsequently closed because of the attack,” Geoffrey Howard, an analyst with Control Risks, told Al Jazeera. “They then left in a number of vehicles and drove towards the Algerian border. Some members returned, and the Misratan ‘Third Force’ claimed they had control of the Sharara facility.”
The fight in Ubari has blocked the pitted road past the installation, and goods and workers can only be flown to the enormous desert site. White plumes of smoke rise above Ubari near the oil site now heavily guarded by Tuareg fighters and the Misratan military; the tall oil flares have been extinguished by members of the Zintan tribe, who blocked a valve to the pipeline hundreds of kilometres closer to the sea.
Oil comprises 95 percent of Libya’s economy. Before the revolution, production was about 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd), and after Gaddafi’s overthrow it bounced back to 1.4 million bpd.
But last year, as Libya’s political fortunes worsened and heavily armed groups ruled the streets, oil production took a sharp tumble when disgruntled workers and federalists, led by Ibrahim Jadhran, took control of three of Libya’s largest oil terminals in the east. This past summer, Jadhran sided with Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani’s government, and output has risen again to 800,000 bpd.
However, el-Sharara remains offline. The largest oil refinery at Ras Lanuf is shut, with the other, at Zawiyah, gravely affected by fighting. This translates to long lines of cars at petrol stations throughout Libya, and skyrocketing gas prices on a lucrative black market.
“The last few months have been a surprise mainly because Libya has managed to produce so much oil despite all of the political insecurity,” Richard Mallinson, an analyst with Energy Aspects, told Al Jazeera. “The oil numbers and the rest of Libya, with its politics and violence, have gone on opposite trajectories.
“What seems to happen is that all the various factions are still able to draw government salary payments, whatever side they are on, and thus have an incentive to allow oil production to continue, so the revenue can continue,” he added. “Then the victorious would take it all.”
The southern Libya border is ripe for smuggling people, gasoline, food, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs; it is suspected that weapons and fighters also flow across. “The French are worried about the strengthening of terrorism in south Libya – it is kind of a Club Med for terrorists,” one western diplomat told Al Jazeera.
After the Libyan revolution, many Tuareg fighters moved south into Mali with weapons, and fought alongside the group Ansar Dine. Now many of these young men are returning to Libya. Concerned French troops have moved closer to the Libyan border, and the United States has built two drone bases in neighbouring Niger. One concern is the possibility of weapons flowing to extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia in towns in Libya’s northeast.
“All the fighters in Benghazi and Derna belong to tribes,” said rival Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, who acknowledged an “uneasy alliance” between his government and Ansar al-Sharia. “Many tribes fight because they lost their boys. Now they are united because they fight [against retired Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, allied with the ‘Dignity’ government]. You will find very few extremists – most are very normal and have nothing to do with extremism.”
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Issa Senussi, a Tuareg political activist who appears to advise the Misratan command in Sebha, echoes Misratan complaints about their former revolutionary allies, the Tebu, and their control over checkpoints and Libya’s lucrative border trade.
“We need to drive the Tebu out of Ubari. This is the only way to make peace,” Senussi told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Misratan intelligence agents and fighters have gathered in a dilapidated former safari hotel in Germa, down the road from Ubari. “We will move into Ubari to keep the peace between the two tribes,” one of the men said.
Rejab Agey, a Tebu elder from the nearby town of Murzuq, has been present at recent tribal negotiations in the Ubari valley. “We have no problem with the Libyan Tuareg. They are in their houses, and in valleys where they keep their camels. All southern tribes went to Ubari to broker a peace,” he said. “But the Libyan Tuareg have no control over extremist groups like Ahmed al-Ansari, and the Misratans refuse to talk.”
Adam, a Tebu policeman from Ubari, agreed: “We were discussing how to stop the war. The Tebu were offering to get rid of all battalions, and that citizens should be in the police and the army, no matter if they are Tebu or Tuareg. The Tuareg refused.”
One Tuareg elder trying to forge peace is Mohammed from al-Aweinat, close to the Algerian border. “We are killing and destroying each other for nothing,” he said. “Everyone has a different agenda. Myself, I am looking for an open dialogue, looking to bring back an agreement that was signed many years ago, and trying to protect the south in general.
“The Tuareg and Tebu can once again become two hands in the desert,” he said. “This is our goal.”