ZWARA, Libya — Arab fighters, apparently from the nearby towns of Jumyl and Ragdelin, which remain loyal to the defeated Colonel Qaddafi, are shelling Zwara, a Berber port city located in Libya’s far northwest, less than 40 miles from Tunisia.
General Sensussi Mahrez, the highest-ranking military officer in the western coastal region to defect from the Qaddafi forces during the war last June, told me that the fighting broke out on Sunday. As I sit in his home in Zwara, I can see where shells exploded just 100 yards away yesterday. One fell on a school, but because this is a vacation week no one was hurt.
Fighters tell me that the shelling of Zwara has been steady for two days. Skirmishes outside of town today have apparently left eight Zwari fighters dead, and more than 100 were treated at the town’s little hospital, normally staffed by just a half dozen GPs. Today, a couple dozen volunteer doctors from Tripoli and Zawiya poured in to treat the wounded. An air ambulance took 15 critically wounded to Tripoli and about 60 others were transported by ambulance to bigger hospitals in Zawiya and Tripoli.
Tonight, at the small front-line outpost of Abdul Samed, I met a Zwara man who escaped from the mass kidnapping that started this round of violence between Zwara and its Arab neighbors. Farid Omar Abu Deeb told me that he was in a convoy of 28 Zwara border guards who were changing out with their colleagues when they were attacked by as many as 200 men. The kidnapped men were released Sunday after negotiations by the central government. Mahrez estimates that the loyalists forces have about 1,000 fighters in their ranks.
Zwara is a Berber outpost, a relatively prosperous Mediterranean port city of some 50,000. It was a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi rebellion in the early days of the revolution and thereafter changed hands several times during the uprising, as control of the city passed back between government loyalists and rebel forces. Today, the city is controlled by the victorious anti-Qaddafi forces, but once again it is under attack by fighters reportedly from two nearby towns, both Arab enclaves with strong sympathies toward the former Qaddafi regime.
It is unclear what the loyalists have as an objective. But the battle seems to confirm that neither calm nor stability has taken hold in this unsettled region, and that the central government is until now largely ineffective in suppressing fighting in this region. Mahrez told me that some 150 military police are en route from Tripoli and added that, “Tripoli needs to stop talking and act.”
In the meantime, the nervous city of Zwara remains on war footing, with armed fighters manning checkpoints throughout the center city, under a clear Mediterranean sky.