September 30, 2011 / 12:10 PM / 6 years ago

Libya officer at Tuareg-Arab talks in desert town

* Al-Obeidi in town near where NTC said Gaddafi hiding

* Recent clashes thought by some to involve deposed leader

GHADAMES, Libya, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The military chief of Libya's new interim government attended a meeting on Friday between Tuareg tribesmen and local Arabs in the southwestern town of Ghadames aimed at patching up differences that have recently spilled over into violence.

The Saharan trading town close to the Algerian border drew international attention this week when an official of the interim authorities, the National Transitional Council (NTC), said deposed ruler Muammar Gaddafi was believed to be hiding in the region.

NTC military chief Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi did not comment on the report or on the hunt for Gaddafi as he prepared to enter the meeting in the town about 600 km southwest of the capital Tripoli.

"I am now here to to witness the agreement between Ghadames and the Tuareg. There has been a problem since July 17," he told Reuters.

Al-Obeidi, a veteran of the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power, said he had joined the revolution on the 20th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

"On the 17th of Ramadan Gaddafi sent me 1,000 weapons to attack the city of Darnah, but I refused to do that ... and on the 18th of Ramadan he sent to me mercenaries with the same intention but I refused. On the 20th of Ramadan I joined the revolution."

GADDAFI ATTACK?

Tuareg tribesmen have fought skirmishes in the Ghadames area this month with armed groups affiliated to Libya's interim government, in a conflict that highlighted the challenges Libya's new rulers face in winning over fractious tribes.

Tuaregs, nomads who roam the desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbours, backed Gaddafi and view the NTC with suspicion.

NTC officials in Tripoli said at the weekend the town, which is under the control of their forces, had been attacked by Gaddafi's military forces, possibly tied to one of Gaddafi's sons, Khamis.

But other sources have said it was a clash between Tuaregs and townspeople -- a more worrying version of events for the NTC because it shows the deep divisions in Libyan society that will remain even if the last of Gaddafi's forces are defeated.

Many Tuaregs back Gaddafi because he supported their rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger in the 1970s and later allowed many of them to settle in southern Libya.

The tribe is important to regional security because the Tuareg have huge influence in the vast, empty desert expanses which are often exploited by drug traffickers and Islamist militants as a safe haven for their operations. (Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Barry Malone, Karolina Tagaris)

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