TRIPOLI: Six days of tribal clashes in a remote desert town in southern Libya have killed 147 people, the country's health minister says.
Fatma al-Hamroush said in a Saturday news conference in Tripoli that the fighting in Sabha has also left 395 wounded. Around 180 people have been transported to the capital for emergency treatment, she said.
The clashes in the oasis region some 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli show the fragile authority of the Libyan government, particularly in the isolated settlements that dot the southern desert.
With only a nascent national army and police force, Libya's ruling National Transitional Council relies on militias comprised of former rebels to keep the peace, and the country's vast distances make it difficult to deploy them to trouble spots.
Deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi's 40 years in power moreover left behind a patchwork of local rivalries. The Sabha fighting pits southern Libyan Arab tribes that reportedly had close connections to Gadhafi against the African Tabu tribe, which fought against him.
Residents of the oasis say that the rivalry burst into open conflict Monday after a Tabu shot a member of the Arab Abu Seif tribe, and then a delegation of Tabu elders and armed men going to participate in reconciliation talks was ambushed.
The Tabu and Arab tribes fought in another oasis region, Kufra, in February.
Sabha residents say the two groups exchanged fire with automatic rifles, mortars, and rockets. Tabu tribal spokesman Mohammed Lino said some 70 Tabu homes were burnt and 100 families were forced to flee the city during the past week of violence.
Video posted on YouTube dated Thursday purportedly from Sabha showed men in civilian clothes and camouflage jackets armed with assault rifles moving through a maze of mud- and stone-walled alleys, as flames rose from burning cars nearby. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.
Some families from Sabha said they fled the city by foot as bullets whizzed by. Some hit women and children.
In one of Tripoli's hospitals on Saturday, 14 year-old Mohamed Koukani Allafy was being treated for a gunshot wound that he sustained walking to school earlier this week. His family said they moved him to the Tabu stronghold city of Morziq, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Sabha, before he was transported by airplane to Tripoli.
Adam Ahmed Saeedi, 12, was also being treated in a Tripoli hospital after he was injured fleeing with his family.
"I fell off the back of the pick up truck as we were trying to escape. They attacked our neighborhood inside of Sabha, and we managed to get out in time," Saeedi said.
Libya's Tabu have kinsmen living across the border in Chad, and the defense ministry said Saturday that it sent a number of militiamen and national army soldiers to the country's southern border in case other African tribes try to join the fight. It also dispatched airplanes to survey the area.
Other militiamen as well as tribal chiefs from around Libya were dispatched to Sabha over the past few days. On Thursday they said they brokered a cease-fire that residents say has held in the city, but not outside.
Lino said that fighting continues just south of Sabha. He said he traveled to Tripoli on Saturday to meet with a number of Cabinet ministers to try and resolve the crisis.
Other Tabu leaders, frustrated with the slow pace of government action, say that Tripoli's leaders have not protected them against attacks from Arab tribes in Sabha.
The government said it is trying to move relief supplies to the area. Health Minister al-Hamroush said that Tripoli has sent large amounts of emergency aid to the city, but that there is still an urgent need for medical supplies.
A U.N. team in Libya says they have also assisted with aid, including additional medical kits.