Inter-city war averted in Libya?                 

All militias from the Libyan city of Misrata have been told to leave the capital, Tripoli, within 72 hours, and "without exception", the BBC reports this morning.

The Libya Herald says the withdrawal call came from members of Misrata’s shura council, local elders and commanders of the city’s revolutionary brigades following a meeting on Sunday evening.

The withdrawal, if it happens, could be a small but significant step towards dealing with Libya’s post-Gaddafi militia problems – but the cost has been heavy. Almost 50 people died and hundreds more were wounded during violence in Tripoli last week, prompting a general strike in the city.

Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times reports:

"There was a tense calm in Tripoli on Sunday after more than 48 hours of bloodshed. Civil-society and community leaders abided by a general strike that coincided with a national mourning period for those slain.

"Shops were shut and normally busy commercial streets were devoid of traffic on the first day of the working week, witnesses reported.

"Residents of the capital reached by telephone said two thirds of schools and much of the government had been shut. Rocks and wooden beams lay across major roads to obstruct any militiamen coming from inside or outside the city."

Local anger has been directed mostly at al-Nasour ("The Eagles"), a militia from Misrata, almost 200km east of Tripoli, which had set itself up in the Gharghour district of the capital in villas abandoned by Gaddafi-era officials.

Al-Nasour – also known as the Gharghour militia – is one of the armed groups recognised and paid by the government, ostensibly to help maintain order, though local residents have accused it of car thefts and other crimes.

Explaining the background to last week’s violence, the Shabab Libya website traces its origins to an incident a couple of weeks ago when a member of the Gharghour militia was stopped at a checkpoint operated by another militia from the Souq al-Jumaa district of Tripoli. Clashes ensued and the Gharghour leader who had been trying to resolve the problem was fatally wounded.

On November 7 the Gharghour militia retaliated by firing rockets at the Souq al-Jumaa militia, according to Shabab Libya. Its account continues:

"This led to running gun battles throughout Tripoli. In response, Souq al-Jumaa and neighbouring militias including the Tripoli Brigade wanted all non-Tripoli militias to leave the capital.

"They pursued the Gharghour militia to the Soug al-Thalath roundabout where the Gharghur militia sought refuge in the nearby girls’ college (also the headquarters of another militia from Misrata, Saraya Swehli). Gharghour were chased out of the college only to return the following day."

This prompted calls for the cities of Misrata and Zindan to remove their militias from Tripoli and on Friday demonstrators headed towards Gharghour district where they were fired upon with anti-aircraft missiles and AK-47s.

Human Rights Watch, which has interviewed a number of witnesses, says militias from Misrata based in the area fired "directly and indiscriminately" at protesters. It also accuses government security forces of standing on the sidelines as the slaughter took place. Apparently they had orders not to intervene, for fear of being overpowered by the militias.

Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights watch asks: "What will it take to rein in the violent militias terrorising the people of Libya? For too long the government has said it’s too dangerous to disarm the militias – now it should be clear that it’s too dangerous not to do so."

Last week’s violence, coupled with some mis-information about what was going on brought the cities of Tripoli and Misrata to the brink of open warfare.

"One of our sources reports that the Gharghour militia were under the belief that they were surrounded without a way out and called on their family and friends for help," the Shabab Libya website says. "Unfortunately, Misrata wrongly believed that the people active in the protest were Gaddafi loyalists and that this was a targeted attack on their city."

Misrata then responded by sending forces to Tajoura, on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli. The Libyan army denies running away in the face of their attack, but it does seem that militias – including the one from Souq al-Jumaa – were largely responsible for keeping Misrata’s forces at bay.

If the Misrata militias do heed the call from their home city and pull out of Tripoli, an inter-city war may have been averted. But that will still leave other militias in Tripoli – and a government that is still reluctant to confront them head-on.

The Shabab Libya article ends:

"The overall consensus in Tripoli is that all militias should make their way out by either dissolving and joining a police or army apparatus or turning in their weapons and joining the rest of society. The people of Tripoli did not intend to start a city versus city conflict …

"The reality is the government doesn’t have the courage to tackle this issue and unfortunately the militias do, thus overriding any attempt by the army and police to restore order."

Today, Reuters reports that the US is working on plans to train several thousand members of Libya’s security forces. Admiral William McRaven of Special Operations Command is quoted as saying:

"There is going to be a kind of conventional effort, to train their conventional forces, between 5,000 and 7,000 conventional forces. And we have a complementary effort on the special operations side to train a certain number of their forces to do counter-terrorism."

He continued:

"Right now as we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to have to assume some risks.

"There is probably some risk that some of the people we will be training with do not have the most clean records. But at the end of the day it is the best solution we can find to train them to deal with their own problems."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 18 November 2013