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Libya Amazigh demand recognition in new constitution

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Members of Libya’s Amazigh, or Berber, minority, whose language Muammar Gaddafi suppressed, demanded on Monday the country’s new rulers recognize them and their tongue in a new constitution.

The demand came in a conference in Tripoli aimed at forging an Amazigh political agenda, the first such expression of Amazigh political identity in the history of the country, and a gesture inconceivable only weeks ago.

“Language rights are not a matter that is subject to a vote,” said Fathi Salem Abu Zakhar, an organizer of the conference. “We want the government, and the coming government, to grasp that the language is part of the Libyan equation.”

The National Transitional Council has vowed to establish a democratic state that ensures individuals rights regardless of ethnicity, but is struggling to form a government and control remaining pockets of resistance held by pro-Gaddafi fighters.

It has only tenuous influence over the many armed bands which waged the ground war to topple Gaddafi, including units from predominantly Amazigh regions which played key roles in seizing territory that helped end his rule in the capital.

The assertion of Amazigh political identity is likely to be closely watched across North Africa.

Amazigh constitute substantial parts of the population of Morocco and Algeria, which have granted various degrees of recognition to the languages within their borders.

Gaddafi brooked no acknowledgment in Libya of the language, Tamazight.

He imprisoned dozens of Amazigh intellectuals in the 1980s whom he accused of plotting to overthrow the state. He later allowed his son, Seif al-Islam, to make overtures to the Amazigh when Libya was rebuilding ties with the U.S. and other Western countries after abandoning its nuclear arms program.

A representative of the NTC who is himself an Amazigh, Salem Qinnan, echoed the constitution demand, saying: “This is a national language. God willing, we Amazigh will work next to our brothers in Libya to root this firmly in the constitution.”

Even Libyans sympathetic to the call, feared it may prove divisive in the attempt to resurrect politics after Gaddafi.

“Differences may arise, issues of definition,” said Amin Mazen, a prominent writer. “The point is for there to be mutual trust and that no one claims he alone is a citizen or possesses the truth.”

“There are a lot of forces against this,” said Mostafa Attir, an Arab Libyan sociologist who attended the gathering. “They have beautiful names and were forced not to use them, and this is against human rights. But all of us who lived here didn’t have human rights.”

Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib