Tripoli-Zawia road remains shut despite threats from militants and mediation by elders

By Moutaz Mathi and Ajnadin Mustafa.

Tripoli, 21 August 2016:

The crisis over the coast road linking Tripoli to Zawia, closed several months ago by Wirshefana militiamen, shows no sign of ending despite efforts to mediate a solution by local elders and threats by Islamist militants in Zawia to use force to reopen it.

The crisis started last week when Zawia’s militant commander Abu Obeida Al-Zawi announced that he was going to take action against what he called Wirshefana “bandits” and reopen the road. Heading the Islamist Mohamed Kilani Brigade, he is supported in this by an assortment of other militants who call themselves the “Revolutionaries’ Operations Room”. They include Benghazi hardliner Wisam Ben Hamid who is now based in Zawia.

Yesterday, there were fears the militants would launch an offensive against the Wirshefana with bloody consequences.

In the event, the militants contented themselves with a military show of strength in Zawia involving some 100 armed vehicles. On the other side, in the Wirshefana area, armed factions, notably the Abdulhamid Al-Hamali Brigade, have rearmed and mobilised. There have been sporadic outbreaks of shooting between both sides, although no full-scale fighting so far.

Meanwhile, responding to the militants’ threat, elders from the two communities as well as from the Jebel Nafusa have been trying to mediate a solution to the road closure. Saturday saw a meeting in the Wirshefana town of Zahra of mediators including members of the Wershafana-Zawia reconciliation committee. But despite an announcement today from the mayor of Maya (which is in the Wirshefana area) that the road would be reopened before next Sunday because Wirshefana demands have been accepted, there is no sign of any breakthrough.

It is reported that there will be another meeting to bring about reconciliation and reopen the road, but also not till next Sunday, and strangely in the town of Musaid on the Egyptian border.

In the unlikely event of Wirshefana and Zawia negotiators actually going to Musaid, it is still unlikely that they will be able to bring about the reopening of the coastal road.

The problem is that those in the two communities who want a settlement are not the ones causing the problem.

While the Wirshefana political establishment supports the Thinni administration based in the east and the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter, those who have closed the road near Camp 27, the major military barracks between Zawia and the Wirshefana area, are freelance militias beyond the control of either the Wirshefana military Council or the LNA. During Ramadan, the LNA, announcing that it was not responsible for the road closure, described those involved as gangs.

For their part, Abu Obeida Al-Zawi and the militants will have nothing to do with anyone from the Wirshefana and are said to have rejected any deal with them. A spokesperson for the Mohamed Kilani Brigade yesterday said that all peaceful attempts to negotiate with those blocking the road had been exhausted and that the military solution was the only option.

In the capital, the fear is that that Abu Obeida and Wissam Ben Hamid are using the road closure issue as a stepping stone to build up support and then to move to Tripoli to try to take it over.

For that reason, there are those there saying that the Misratans will not allow the road to reopen because they do not want the militants arriving, and that they have already been in contact with the Wirshefana who have closed the road to make sure it stays closed.

Meanwhile in a separate development in Zawia, the town’s other perennial problem, the bitter rivalry between the Khadrawi and Ahneish families has again resulted in clashes between their respective militias. The fighting started after an alleged assassination attempt on Ibrahim Ahneish in the town’s Gamal Abdul Nasser Street.

Note: We originally stated that the meeting on 28 April would be in Shihat rather than Musaid. We were misinformed. We apologise for the mistake.

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