Ubari, a ramshackle desert hub hundreds of miles from Libya’s populous cities on the Mediterranean coast, was once a favored tourist destination, a picturesque pocket of the Sahara with dramatic sand dunes, oases and volcanic mountains.
Now, however, it’s best known for a bloody power struggle in the desert near the southern borders where Libya meets Algeria, Niger and Chad, a desolate expanse where Libya’s warring factions, unleashed by the revolt and NATO air campaign that toppled Moammar Gadhafi, battle for control of oil fields and smuggling routes.
On a recent winter day, wounded Tuareg fighters were rushed into a makeshift clinic, their military fatigues soaked in blood. One man screamed as a doctor tended to his gaping head wound. Beside him, another man died as nurses frantically tried to resuscitate him.
The men were casualties of the battle triggered four months ago between the indigenous, traditionally semi-nomadic tribes, the Tuareg and the Tebu. Hundreds have been wounded or killed, and thousands of mostly poor families displaced.
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“Negotiations with the Tebu have not been successful,” said Ismael Ali Suleiman, one of the Tuareg elders tasked with brokering Ubari’s peace. Both sides generally agree they’re at a stalemate.
The Ubari conflict is just one of many that have turned Libya into a caldron of warring factions, some with extremist connections, where the ultimate fight is between the victors and losers of the 2011 revolution, and who should claim the spoils.
Gadhafi, who variously used and discriminated against both tribes, promised them rights and rewards if they fought on his side. While many Tuareg fighters joined him, the Tebu largely rebelled, but neither took up arms against the other.
The battle now is centered on who’s a Libyan citizen and belongs to the land – both tribes have strong family ties to neighboring nations – and, by extension, who’ll control the lucrative cross-border smuggling routes and the nearby Sharara oil field, Libya’s second largest, capable of producing 300,000 barrels per day.
The violence, like local conflicts across Libya, is now cast into a divisive, larger political context. Each side is supported by one of Libya’s two rival governments and their varied agendas and international backers.
The Tebu warn that al Qaida-affiliated extremists are in the south and are associated with some Tuareg fighters. Many Tuareg accuse the Tebu of exaggerating the terrorist threat and warn it could prompt the French to intervene, something the Tuareg consider potentially disastrous.
The insurgent Tripoli-based Libyan Dawn government, with its sponsors, Turkey and Qatar, have made an alliance with the Tuareg security presence at the oil field and borders. The Tebu are mostly allied with Libya’s so-called Dignity government, which won the last elections in June and is recognized by the European Union, the United States, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. It was forced to flee Tripoli for Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, when Libyan Dawn fighters seized the city in August.
Added to the mix is a contingent of Libyan Dawn military forces known as the “Third Force.” They’re fighters from the northern coastal city of Misrata who were heralded for their role in the anti-Gadhafi revolution. Ironically, they’ve forged a partnership with local Tuareg fighters, who carry a bitter stigma of once having been allied with Gadhafi.
“We are saving security in the south, and trying to do this without getting involved in the fighting,” said their the Third Force’s operational head, Mohammed al Durat.
Last November, the Tuareg, with Libyan Dawn support, wrested control of the Sharara oil field from Tebu fighters and a militia from the town of Zintan, which had patrolled the facility since Gadhafi’s fall. The Misratans and the Zintan fighters are embroiled in a ferocious battle in the north after fighting over Tripoli’s airport last year, which the defeated Zintan forces were forced to flee.
Sharara is a partnership between Libya’s national oil company and the Spanish company Repsol. It’s been offline since November, when Zintan troops sabotaged its pipeline in the north. The road from Ubari now is blocked by snipers and only a skeleton crew operates the facilities, with supplies flown into Sharara’s small airfield.
With other oil and gas installations attacked or closed, Libya is producing just 330,000 barrels daily, down from its 1.6 million-barrel peak after the revolution, according to Mustafa Sanalla, the Tripoli-based National Oil Corp. head.
Seventy percent of gasoline consumed locally is now imported, and smuggling of Libyan gasoline across the borders has exacerbated the grave shortfall.
Richard Mallinson, an analyst with Energy Aspects, a British consultancy, thinks Libya has entered a new phase in its conflict. “There seemed to be an unwritten agreement that Dignity and Libyan Dawn would not impinge on oil facilities, and would carry on the fighting with minimum disruption,” he said. “It now appears they have reached a new goal to actually take oil facilities by force.”
Stretching south and west of Sharara is Libya’s vast and porous frontier with Niger and Algeria, another threat to instability. Under mostly Tuareg control, this desert corner is a suspected passage for drugs, weapons and militants, and an area of heightened concern for France and the United States, which have set up military bases in Niger from which they conduct surveillance flights.
Forces from the insurgent Libyan Dawn government have visited Tuareg fighters recently along the border with Algeria, promising weapons, cars and fuel. But not all the local Tuareg approve. In the nearby town of Ghat, Tuareg residents turned back a column of Libyan Dawn armored cars and blocked the small airstrip from military cargo flights.
On a visit this month to French troops in Madama, 60 miles from the Libyan border, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain promised to halt “the jihadists, terrorism and those who want to transform this ancient caravan route into a route of violence and trafficking.”
But William Lawrence, a Libya analyst and former head of the International Crisis Group in North Africa, thinks it’s unlikely that vow will translate into action. “There is not a lot of appetite, nor is there much willingness, for an international intervention,” he said.
Instead, halfhearted hopes are pinned to a United Nations peace effort, which seeks to stop the fight between Tripoli and Tobruk, and the smaller conflicts backed by it. “If the U.N. didn’t exist in Libya you would have to invent it,” said Lawrence. “It’s the only game in town.”
Meanwhile, the fighting in Ubari goes on. From the tiny runway on the isolated Sharara oil field, now run by Libyan Dawn and Tuareg fighters, one can see a plume of white smoke rising on the horizon. It’s an ominous reminder of the area’s unresolved crisis.