TRIPOLI Three days of clashes between rival militias in southern Libya spread to the centre of the country's fourth largest city Sabha on Tuesday despite the deployment of army troops trying to stop the violence which has so far killed nearly 50 people.
The clashes highlight the problems the government faces in imposing its authority following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Fighting between gunmen from Sabha and those from the Tibu ethnic group had reached the centre of the city, said Ibrahim Misbah, a doctor at the main hospital.
An Interior Ministry official said the army had sent 300 soldiers stationed in southern Libya to help calm the situation on Monday. Another 300 soldiers left Tripoli on Tuesday to assist, he added.
Sabha fighter Oweidat al-Hifnawi said government forces had arrived in Sabha and were "in the middle of the clashes".
"We know that they are here to try to solve the problem and not fight," he said. "There are unconfirmed reports that they have retreated out of the city."
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is struggling to assert its authority across Libya, where rival militias and tribal groups are jostling for power and resources after the revolution that ousted Gaddafi.
Hampered by a lack of a coherent national army, the NTC has struggled to persuade the many militias who fought Gaddafi to lay down their arms and join the armed forces and police.
Abdulmajid Saif al-Nasser, an NTC representative for Sabha, said he was resigning in protest because he said the Council was not doing enough to stop the violence.
"I have not seen any reaction from the Council to what is happening now in Sabha. The air force has not been sent out, there was only a plane from the health ministry carrying medicine," he told Libyan television. "The state is supposed to intervene in these cases ... but there is no state."
CLOSE TO 50 PEOPLE KILLED
Fourteen people were killed on Tuesday and 30 people wounded, Misbah said, giving numbers for the Sabha side. Around 20 people were killed in fighting by Monday, he said.
"The hospital crew has been working around the clock since Monday night and the injured keep coming in," he told Reuters.
Ali Galama, a Tibu representative on the NTC from Murzuq, south of Sabha, said 15 people were killed on the Tibu side and 18 were wounded. While he was speaking from Benghazi, he said he was in touch with Tibu in the area by telephone.
The fighting broke out on Sunday after a Sabha man was killed in a dispute over a car.
A fighter called Hifnawi said the clashes had moved from around the airport to the downtown area. "There are Tibu snipers all over the Sabha city centre and the number of the wounded keeps going up," Hifnawi said.
Mousa al-Koni, a Tibu representative on the NTC, said by phone from Tunis that the clashes had escalated after Tibu former fighters tried to steal a car from a member of the Sabha militia. He said a reconciliation committee was being formed to help stop the violence.
Last month, dozens of people were killed in clashes between tribes in the far southeastern province of Al Kufra. Armed forces eventually intervened to stop the fighting, in a rare example of the Tripoli government imposing its authority.
(Writing By Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Marie-Louise Gumuchian, editing by David Stamp)