Libyan tribal leaders met in the hope of easing tensions between clans in a country where the new central government is still weak, weapons abound and rival militias sometimes lock horns.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) convened the conference in Zawiyah, the site of a major skirmish between a militia from the coastal city and and fighters from the Wershifanna tribe over a strategic military base this month.
The NTC hopes a tradition of mediation between tribal chiefs can nip such clashes in the bud, Reuters reports.
“This is a tribal society. In my tribe, there are 14 families. If I say one word, everyone will obey,” said Lamin Mohammed al-Farjani, from the town of Msalata near Tripoli.
“If the elders order it, all the weapons will be handed over. It would accelerate the process.”
At the opening of the three-day meeting, tribal leaders in traditional dress reflected the diversity of a country four times the size of Iraq, most of which is desert. Delegates wore outifts ranging from suits to flowing Tuareg robes and turbans.
The provisional government, sworn in this week and due to stay in office until elections to a constituent assembly are held next year, says improving security is a top priority.
Three months after Muammar Gaddafi fled the capital, armed militias have ignored requests to disarm.
Several militia leaders are significant political players but most have stayed out of this caretaker government, keeping their sights trained on next year’s elections instead.
CHICKEN AND EGG
Some fear this mix of power politics and tension between regions and tribes is potentially explosive, but delegates said the tribal disputes were relatively minor and could be solved.
Al-Farjani said clashes were often the result of impulsive behaviour by armed youths rather than deeper tribal grudges.
“Usually, it’s the actions of young, irresponsible people. All the elders and wise people in Libya want Libya to be united,” he said, echoing NTC Chairman Muftafa Abdel Jalil’s remark that irresponsible behaviour sparked the Zawiyah clash.
Beyond the problems of marauding gangs and boundary disputes, delegates said some issues had lingered since the war.
“The war caused prisoners to be taken,” said Mohammed Saleh Hussein, a member of the Tuareg al-Ansar tribe’s council from the southern town of Obari, near where Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam was captured a week ago.
As guest speakers and organisers lined up on stage to praise the revolution that toppled Gaddafi after 42 years in power.
A key question is how each tribe can be convinced to disarm its young fighters.
“The problem we are suffering from is the weapons spread all over the country. We have to collect all these weapons,” said Mohammed Shbouki, from near the border with Tunisia.
The government hopes to meld the militias into a single national army.
Shbouki said members of his tribe were asking for the national army to move into their neighbourhoods to provide security, but he highlighted the chicken-and-egg nature of the problem.
“If the people are living in safety and security, I think they will hand over their weapons to the army,” he said.