As fighting flares in Kufra, conflicting reports emerge from Libya’s south-easternmost town deep in the Libyan Sahara. A protracted conflict between two local communities – the Arab Zwaya tribe and the Tebu, an ethnic minority group – erupted anew last Sunday when an armed group – allegedly Sudanese – attempted to enter the town but was confronted with stiff resistance from Zway forces.
According to the spokesman of the Kufra Security Directorate, Mohammad Khalil, Tebu and Sudanese forces arrived from north of Kufra in a convoy of 20 vehicles in an attempt to seize the town, but “townspeople” managed to push back the attack and destroy most of the vehicles.
Dozens were reported killed and scores injured in this latest outbreak of violence, including Zway commander Tawfiq Shwishin. Pro-Zway news sources posted graphic footage of men in military gear killed during the attack alleging they were Sudanese rebels. Armed clashes are believed to have been followed by attacks against civilians. One particularly brutal video shows a man smashing a brick on the head of a black-skinned man in civilian clothes, as he is already lying on the ground, motionless.
Although the Tebu-Zwaya conflict predates Libya’s current political woes, the latest violence is linked to the armed conflict between Libya’s two rival governments, the internationally recognized one in eastern Libya and its rival in the capital. At the margin of the Libyan territory, Kufra has not been of much interest so far, but both governments accuse one another of sponsoring illegal armed groups in the area.
On the day of the clashes, the Chief of Staff of the armed forces in Tripoli issued a statement condemning the “foreign assault” carried out by “gangs from Chad, Niger and Sudan, including mercenaries from the Justice and Equality Movement”, a rebel group from Darfur, Sudan. Libya’s rival army chief said these gangs were hired by the “leaders of Operation Dignity”, referring to the official Libyan army led by General Khalifa Haftar. Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress or rival parliament in Tripoli, seconded this statement, expressing his condolences for the death of Shwishin and others who died “defending their homeland”.
Subsequent media coverage and debates reflected the broad sentiment that the latest violence was indeed a case of Libyans against foreign invaders. Former Congress member for Kufra Twati al-Aidha, who is also from the Zway tribe, backed up the claims from Tripoli, saying that General Haftar had hired hundreds of fighters from Chad, Sudan and other African countries to fight alongside the Libyan army in Benghazi. These fighters are now attacking Kufra, so al-Aidha, “with the pretext of fighting the Islamic State Group” although in reality “there are no terrorists in Kufra”.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese Army has said that one of the dead militants shown on the video footage was Abdelkarim Adam Arja, a commander of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Minnawi Faction, another Darfur-based rebel group. Khartoum has previously claimed that several rebel groups it is fighting on its own territory are using the chaos in neighboring Libya to regain military strength. On Friday the Sudanese Army spokesman again denounced the “criminal and terrorist acts” of the SLM – Minnawi Faction and the Movement for Justice and Equality in Kufra and called on international organizations to take action against armed groups destabilizing the region.
A social media page that claims affiliation with the SLM has also identified one of the dead fighters on the Kufra footage but claimed he fell on the Sudanese-Libyan border. Meanwhile, a spokesman of the SLM – Minnawi Faction has denied any of the group’s fighters are on Libyan soil and has blamed the Sudanese government of spreading lies in order to cover up its own involvement in Libya. Khartoum is being accused by the official Libyan government of providing its rival in Tripoli with military assistance.
The Kufra area has for years suffered from tensions between Zway and Tebu residents and disputes, which relate in part to the smuggling business, frequently lead to communal clashes. The Zwaya, and other Arab tribes that are in conflict with the Tebu, allege that the latter bring in relatives from across the Chadian border, in addition to non-Tebu mercenaries, to seize territory across southern Libya. The Tebu on their part say the political exclusion and social marginalization they suffered from under the Gaddafi regime is being perpetuated by the current leaders and accuse their opponents of targeting Tebu civilians and defaming their community.
In reaction to Sunday’s violence, the Municipal Council of Kufra, which is dominated by Zwaya, said it has engaged in “great efforts” to reach a ceasefire agreement with the local Tebu community, but that all efforts were met with “stubbornness and diversion attempts to gain time (for Tebu forces) to attack the town”.
The Council also blamed both rival governments of ignoring the Kufra crisis and manipulating it “to serve their agendas in the context of the Libyan civil war”. “For those who still believe that what is happening in Kufra is merely tribal problems or who do not take our struggle seriously, know that the blood of our sons is not cheap”, read its statement on Monday. Finally, the Council threatened to turn to foreign states for help if nothing was done at the national level.
On the Tebu side, the prevailing discourse was seen as yet another sign that Libya’s Arab majority blames their community for all problems. The Tebu insist that the Kufra conflict is essentially tribal in nature and that the Sudanese militants are in fact sponsored by their opponents.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the National Tebu Assembly, which is the main group representing Tebu interests at the national level, represented the Kufra crisis as latest episode of a historical struggle that began in the mid 18th century. The Assembly said “extremists” in the transitional authorities after the revolution exploited Tebu-Zwaya animosities forging a “tribal-terrorist alliance” to “exterminate the Tebu”. The Tebu have long been accusing northern Libyan power brokers of backing the Zwaya tribe and promoting a radical Islamist agenda in the south. They also say the recent surge of violence is the result of Zway forces pushing Tebu residents out of mixed areas and denying them access to parts of Kufra.
According to the Tebu National Assembly “terrorism is seeping into Kufra” through the Abdelmalek Mountains east of Kufra on the Egyptian border. It firmly rejected allegations that the Tebu bring in foreign fighters, but said its adversaries were backed by foreign powers. “Claims that forces from neighboring countries are fighting alongside the Tebu do not fool anyone. The Tebu are capable of defending themselves alone,” the statement said.
Civil society groups in two mainly Tebu neighborhoods of Kufra deplored the “murder and persecution” of Tebu by “Zway militias and Islamic State militants supported by Sudan”, noting that heavy artillery was being used in residential areas. A statement on Thursday condemned the official Libyan government’s “silence while the GNC is inciting the killing of Tebu” and called for the help of the international community, likening the situation in Kufra to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.