KUFRA, Libya (AP) — Scores of civilians have been killed in the past 24 hours in tribal warfare in a remote region of southern Libya, witnesses said on Tuesday.
Moussa Bazama, an ambulance worker driving north taking the injured to treatment, said 50 people had been killed by the rockets, mortars and gunfire rocking residential areas in the desert town of Kufra.
Lines of trucks and cars carrying hundreds of families were streaming out of Kufra on the highway leading towards the populated areas of the coast, some 500 miles (800 kilometers) away.
"The situation is extremely bad," said Abdel-Rehim al-Shewih, an engineer in Kufra contacted by phone. "It is about who kills the most every day."
He said that shops were closed, no one could walk in the street, and if one tribe takes over one square, the other opens fire and drives it out.
For more than a week, the powerful Arab tribe of al-Zwia has clashed with the African Tabu tribe near Kufra, a border area where Libya, Chad and Sudan meet. The region is a hub for the smuggling of African migrants, goods and drugs.
The two groups are old rivals. The Tabu had long complained of discrimination under former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Since Feb. 11, the fight has descended into an all-out confrontation with other smaller Arab tribes joining al-Zwia against the Tabu, residents of the area say.
On Tuesday, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the leader of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council said that Gadhafi's regime loyalists are "seeding sedition" in Kufra but declined to elaborate on which of the tribes are connected to the former regime.
NTC leaders often blame problems in post-revolutionary Libya on remnants of Gadhafi's regime, usually without proof.
Salem Samadi, who heads a revolutionary militia and has tried to mediate a truce between the two sides, blamed the outbreak of violence on a fight over smuggling.
He said the NTC appointed a leading member of the Tabu named Eissa Abdel-Majed to combat illegal trafficking.
Six Tabu tried to stop and search a smuggler from the al-Zwia, he said. The smuggler shot at them, killing five of members of the rival tribe. The Tabu chased the smuggler, killing him inside a shop, Samadi added.
The fighting spread from there, he said, speaking by phone from an area near Kufra last week.
Abdel-Jalil said that al-Zwia have taken control of the airport, preventing the injured from Tabu to be transferred to the northern cities to be treated.
Members of the al-Zwia for their part accused the Tabu of trying to get control of the city by recruiting forces from Chad, setting up a training camp, and taking over security headquarters last week.
"We discovered they are forming an army to invade the city, and they are receiving thousands of fighters and weapons," said pharmacist Taher Bin Taher,
He said there is no electricity, water or fuel in the town.
Al-Shewih. who is from the al-Zwia, said that his tribe fears that the Tabu is planning to "wipe out" his tribe and establish a separate state.
"People are saying the Tabu wants to take over, but no one knows the truth," he said.
Libya's defense ministry said on several occasions that it sent troops to stop the clashes, but witnesses said that those forces have not intervened to stop the war.
"Officials say: 'This is tribal. So what? Let them tear each other apart?'" al-Shewih said. "Blood is spilled every day, non-stop."