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In Libya's south the elders talk peace, but the soldiers fight on

Tuareg and Tabu tribesmen have warred for 14 months in Ubari. And despite peace efforts in Qatar, there is little hope of hostilities ending
Tuareg on duty in Ubari, as they expect an uneasy truce to end at any time (MEE / Tom Wescott)

UBARI, Libya - High above the southern Saharan town of Ubari, on the plateau of the Tendi mountain, young Tuareg fighter Ahmed recites poetry over lunch, prays, and then readies himself for another shift on the frontline.

"I expect to die at any time," the 19 year-old says, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. "But leaving is impossible. Either I live here in my hometown with dignity or I die trying to protect that right."

All six of Ahmed's brothers have been killed in 14 months of fighting between his tribe and the Tabu, its rival in Ubari, as they battle for control in a conflict that has become a microcosm of the country's wider war.

And despite a tentative peace deal, signed by tribal elders in Qatar on Monday after weeks of talks, the sound of gunfire drowns out talks of a ceasefire. Heavy fighting broke out within hours of the deal being made public, showing that peace exists only on paper until the agreement is accepted by military leaders.

In Libya's tribal south the elders talk peace, but the soldiers fight on.

Post-revolution Libya has been characterised by political and military divisions and multiple opposing factions now remain loosely affiliated to either one of the country’s rival powers. The Tabu are allied with the internationally recognised government in the east of the country and the Tuareg are with the Tripoli government, which controls the capital and much of west and central Libya.

These alliances contributed to mounting hostility between the two tribes, who had lived side by side in Ubari for decades. Fierce clashes last September rapidly spiralled into a conflict that transformed the town centre into a war zone, around which both sides have struggled to gain the upper hand.

A Tuareg figher overlooks Urabi from the Tendi mountain (MEE / Tom Wescott)

“We are obliged to accept the decisions of our tribal elders and we will accept reconciliation as long as it is fair to everyone,” said one Tuareg military commander Otman Ziad, standing on an escarpment on the edge of the Tuareg-controlled Tendi. Reached by bullet-scarred vehicles which navigate a steep climb though Tabu sniper positions, the mountain's plateau is the most strategically important and fiercely contested position in this Saharan conflict.

Among heavily armed vehicles and cloth-covered encampments, young fighters pass quiet hours playing a battered table football game, secured with rocks and sheltered by heaped sand barriers. "After the revolution, we thought we would be playing this in a sports club, not on a mountain in a war zone," said one of the young Tuareg fighters, Osama. 

Tendi mountain has been a consistent stumbling block to a year of unsuccessful negotiations to bring peace to Ubari. 

“The Tabu had three conditions for peace - that the Tuareg fighters come down from the mountain, evacuate a military camp at its base and provide assurances that there will be no forces from the Tripoli government stationed in the town," said Alashi Othman, a Tabu involved in the talks.

Military commanders in Ubari have previously refused to give up their stronghold on the mountain. “Tendi was a military location before the conflict started and it has to be controlled by us as a monitoring point for the whole town," Ziad said. 

"Whoever controls the mountain controls the town. And the enemy is now in hiding with any movement under our attack." But Ubari’s sniper-heavy war has kept the movements of either side hard to monitor, and the sudden crack of incoming fire from Tabu positions down in the town sent Tuareg soldiers rushing to machine gun posts to return fire.

One focus of talks in Qatar was on handing control of the mountain to impartial forces, comprised of other indigenous townspeople, many of whom have continued to live in Ubari even as the conflict has raged around their homes, said Tabu representative Othman. 

“If this agreement is translated on the ground, there will be peace, but a lot depends on whether the Tripoli government wants peace in Ubari,” he said, referring to the Tuareg alignment with the powers in the capital. “We need support from everyone to bring peace to Ubari."

Young soldiers play table football during a lull in fighting (MEE / Tom Wescott)

Both sides have accused the other of using foreign fighters brought in through Libya’s porous borders. 

Tuareg leaders claim they are fighting Tabu from Chad, not Libya, and the Tabu side claims that many of the Tuareg are from Niger and Mali and include "terrorist" elements.

“Some media say there are al-Qaeda here but they are lying. We are just ordinary Libyans born here in Ubari,” said commander Bello Ahmed Hamadeen last week, pointing out Tabu positions from the Tuareg frontline, which snaked unevenly through farms and homes on the town’s outskirts. 

He said the Tuareg side was advancing but progress was slowed by civilians living close by. He claimed the Tabu were using them as human shields, adding: “Because of this, our positions further inside the town can only be reached on foot, walking or running through enemy firing lines.” 

But many of town’s residents who are neither Tabu nor Tuareg do not want to leave their homes, or are too poor to do so. Although they have taken a neutral stance in the conflict, Abrahim Youssef, one Tabu involved in earlier peace talks, said: "The majority of local residents support the Tabu, even though they are not involved in the fighting, because they think the Tuareg are affiliated with Islamists."  

Some tribal elders have also implicated other countries, including France and Qatar - now the peacebrokers - in sustaining the war in Ubari.

"This is absolutely not a tribal conflict. Like the fighting in other parts of Libya, it is fuelled by the agendas of different countries,” said Tuareg Elder Sheikh Jeili Ali, adding that interests lay in gaining control over the extensive oil and gas resources in the country’s south. 

"It’s because of these rich places in the south that the Tabu and other tribes have been used by different countries who want a heavy presence in the area," he said. “We know the Tabu well and they are suffering too.” 

The cost has been high with around 1,000 casualties from both sides, including some 400 dead and a further 600 injured.

Fighting in Urabi has killed 400 and injured 600 more (MEE / Tom Wescott)

Most Ubari citizens long for peace. The 14-month conflict has left the town cut off from fuel, food and medical supplies and the only road to the town is blockaded. 

Water supplies have been compromised, forcing residents to collect water from often contaminated sources, sparking an outbreak of typhoid. Salaries have not been paid in months, banks stand closed and, with everything moved through the desert on small trucks, prices for the most basic goods have rocketed. 

"We are desperate for peace,” said Ahmed, a Tuareg who sells fuel from barrels at five times the standard price. “Imagine, we are just 70 kilometres away from one of the country's largest oil fields and yet we don’t even have any petrol."

The conflict, he said, had made life impossible and forced hundreds of families to flee the town.

But the news of the Qatar peace deal has been greeted only with cautious optimism on the ground, after the consistent failure of previous dialogue attempts, and after this latest ceasefire lasted just a few hours. 

“The fighting on Monday was a message from both sides to show that they are still strong and that any peace deal is not an indication that either side is losing ground,” a Tabu resident in a nearby town said. "But if the peace deal doesn’t hold, the fighting will become much worse than before."

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