Tripoli, 10 June:
A crackdown on smuggling appears to lie at the heart of the closure today of the Libyan-Tunisian crossing point . . .[restrict]at Ras Jedir, which has seen Libyan military oust Libyan border control police, because of their alleged involvement in illegal cross-border trade.
Meanwhile the crossing was blocked from the Tunisian side by locals angry at the arrest in Libya of 12 Tunisians, thought to be suspected smugglers. Long queues of vehicles built up, in particular on the western side of the frontier, with Libyan citizens trying vainly to get home.
It has been estimated that up to a million Libyans cross into Tunisia each year for tourism or health care. Ras Jedir is the larger of the two official crossing points between the countries. The other at Dehiba-Wazin in the foothills of the Nafusa needs to be upgraded and is in any event seen as too remote. A third border post is being considered at Mashhad Salih.
The official Tunisian news agency, TAP maintained that the Ras Jedir border had been closed from the Libyan side “ as a precautionary security measure”, with only ambulances being allowed to pass through. There has been no formal comment on this from Tripoli.
However a source in Libyan immigration said this evening that as far as the Libyans were concerned, the border was open. What had happened was that men of the Libya Shield Brigade, under the control of the Ministry of Defence, had taken control the border post from Border Control Police, who are run by the Ministry of the Interior. Immigration officials were not affected by the takeover.
Illegal cross-border trade is rampant, making smuggling organisations, which are often family-based, a great deal of money. The main contraband flows are cheap (subsidised) Libyan petrol into Tunisia, with cheap (subsidised) Tunisian phosphates and food flowing back this way. The smugglers have used their clandestine routes for many years. Indeed during the revolution, smuggling rings assisted with the movement of arms and personnel into Libya, while helping evacuate the wounded, often, though not always, for a price.
In recent months there has been growing anger among smugglers on both sides of the border at attempts to clamp down on their lucrative activities. In April, 150 vehicles from Tunisia laden with food, tried to smash their way through to Libya. Last month, it was the turn of 40 vehicles from Libya to seek to storm through the border the other way.
Some agency reports were insisting tonight that the frontier had been closed because of fighting between former rebels and the new Libyan armed forces. Tunisia’s TAP said that there had been a fire fight between militiamen from Zouara and the Libyan army. No one from either the Ministry of Defence or Interior could be contacted for comment.