TRIPOLI/ALGIERS, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Tuareg tribesmen fought skirmishes at the weekend with armed groups affiliated to Libya’s interim government, two sources with local contacts told Reuters, a clash 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 Libya’s deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi and view with suspicion the National Transitional Council (NTC) that is now in power.
The clashes happened in Ghadames, a town on the border with Algeria about 600 km southwest of Tripoli, according to the commander of an anti-Gaddafi military unit and a leading Tuareg figure based in Algeria.
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 Muammar Gaddafi’s sons, Khamis.
But the two sources 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.
“There are no forces belonging to Khamis Gaddafi in Ghadames, the news is not true,” said Mukhtar al-Akhdar, commander of the anti-Gaddafi Zintan Brigade based in Tripoli.
“We have some of our forces, three to four groups, there in the area which provided us with the true version of the story,” he told Reuters.
“What really took place were skirmishes between some anti-Gaddafi forces of the residents of the city and members of the Tuareg tribes,” he said.
“We have a presence in the area and we will organise a reconciliation council for the members of the two groups and, God willing, all will be fine soon.”
Ahmed Najem, a prominent Tuareg who is based in the desert of southern Algeria, said he had been in contact by telephone with fellow tribespeople in Ghadames.
“There has been a clash between the Libyans and the Tuareg in Ghadames,” he told Reuters in the Algerian capital.
“The Libyans wanted to clean up the city from its Tuareg. This is how it all started. They provoked our brothers saying they are with Gaddafi, and that Gaddafi is over now, so they have to disappear too. This is why the clashes erupted.”
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 Christian Lowe; Editing by Tim Pearce)