Ajdabiya tribal leaders extended their full support to the Libyan army in reaction to a sudden outbreak of violence in the oil crescent town 850km east of Tripoli.
The tribal meeting was called following clashes and the shelling of two army checkpoints last week that was blamed on the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council, a local jihadi group that has recently seized territory and set up checkpoints south of the town.
In a statement last Tuesday, tribal leaders and other local representatives called on the UN Security Council to lift the weapons embargo on the military forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized parliament, arguing that “in order to implement the goals of the (national) dialogue, security must be ensured by the Libyan army”.
In a direct reference to the checkpoint shelling, tribes pledged to lift tribal protection of anyone “who carries or uses weapons endangering security and stability … or who destroys state institutions and property”, and to turn them over to justice.
The customary principle of tribal protection guarantees an individual kin support in times of trouble and obliges fellow tribesmen to seek retribution or reparations in case an individual is killed. The suspension of this principle is an essential step to combat ARSC, which recruited primarily among the Zwaya tribe and is now based in Zwaya-owned land in Ajdabiya’s southern outskirts.
The clashes that rocked the town on May 20 and 21 highlighted the need for tribal unity in the face of ARSC’s growing power. There are lingering tensions between the town’s two main tribes, the Zwaya and the Magharba. The latter’s dominance in the municipal council, which was elected last year, upset the local Zwaya community, which is accused of sheltering ARSC fighters. In addition there is a small Tebu community; members of an ethnic minority group that has strained relations with the Zwaya tribe in southeast Libya.
The most recent fighting reportedly began with a personal dispute, during which Milud “al-Galouni” al-Zway — a senior commander of ARSC and former regional head in the now defunct Libya Shield Force — was killed by a Tebu. In response to the killing of their commander, ARSC attacked Tebu residential areas, but also took advantage of the situation to move against their main rival, local army unit Infantry Brigade 149, according to Libya Channel’s correspondent in Ajdabiya.
ARSC, which declared its existence in March, is allied with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council that is fighting the army in Libya’s second largest city, 160km north of Ajdabiya. Early on May 21, ARSC convoys shelled two checkpoints guarded by Brigade 149 on the desert road to Tobruk and on the road to Benghazi, injuring several soldiers.
The militants were then pushed back by a number of forces stationed in and around Ajdabiya, all loyal to the government and the army, including two brigades that normally guard oil facilities under the umbrella of the Petroleum Facilities Guard’s central division. The PFG also guards the western entrance to Ajdabiya, but spokespeople of the force have said they were not responsible for the protection of the town.
Since the clashes, calm has returned to Ajdabiya. But ARSC is defiant and holds on to its positions south of the town. Last Saturday the group released a propaganda video on the Internet that shows its fighters controlling vehicles at checkpoint 18, which is 18km south of Ajdabiya on the desert road to Aujila and Jalu.
Members of the now defunct Libya Shield Force’s central division, who are believed to be closely associated with ARSC, also still control Al-Nahr military base, 60km south of Ajdabiya. The Ajdabiya branch of UN-designated terror group Ansar al-Sharia, which was active during 2013 and 2014, has entirely dissolved into the ARSC, according to local sources.
Tuesday’s tribal statement provided the army with a public mandate to dislodge ARSC from this area. The southern desert road is strategically important as it leads right into the heart of the Sirte Basin, which contains about 80% of Libya’s proven oil resources and where most oil fields are located. Several oil fields raids over the past few months have been attributed to the Islamic State group, but may have been coordinated with the Ajdabian groups.