x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Libya's new rulers close borders to clamp down on lawlessness

Since the end of the war that ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi last year, Libya's southern regions have struggled with smuggling, lingering unrest and insecurity.

Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan, right, is welcomed by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers.
Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan, right, is welcomed by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers.

TRIPOLI // Plagued by violence, drugs, weapons trafficking and an influx of illegal immigrants, Libya's new rulers are seeking to clamp down on lawlessness in the vast desert south by closing the region's porous borders.

Since the end of the war that ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi last year, Libya's southern regions have struggled with smuggling, lingering unrest and insecurity.

Aiming to soothe local discontent over Tripoli's perceived inaction in countering the chaos, the General National Congress ordered the temporary closure of Libya's borders with Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria.

Days after prime minister Ali Zeidan concluded a regional tour to those countries, the national assembly also declared seven southern areas restricted military areas.

While the decree may allay regional worries over Libya's lingering insecurity, the lack of a strong army or border force raises questions of what effect it will have on the ground.

"The aim is to improve security, stem the smuggling of weapons, illegal immigration," a congressman, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, he said on Sunday.

"How the decree is implemented is for the government and army chief to see. At least we are taking steps."

In the south, where tribal ties are more powerful than on the Mediterranean coast, almost-open borders, discontent and the availability of arms make the region one of the biggest potential problems for the government.

Weak security forces have exercised little control as tribal battles over power and lucrative trade routes have exacerbated instability.

Earlier this month, several southern congress members boycotted sessions in protest, citing increased violence by armed groups there as well as drug trafficking - just as around 200 prisoners escaped from a jail in the desert city of Sabha.

Much of Libya's southern border is guarded by autonomous local brigades. In the absence of an effective national army, the state often relies on former rebel fighters for security.

"The degree to which borders are actually sealed will depend on the degree to which it has incorporated the different militias that operate along those borders and the degree to which it will try to formalise their control over those borders," said Geoff Porter, of North Africa Risk Consulting.

Restoring order in the south is important to the stability of the wider region, where concerns over Libya's precarious security have been exacerbated by the resurgent threat of Islamist militancy stemming from northern Mali.

In the chaos since Gaddafi's fall, the south has become a smuggling route for weapons which have reached Al Qaeda militants deeper in the Sahara.

It is also used for trafficking legal and contraband goods. The decree allows the defence ministry to appoint a military governor with the authority to arrest fugitives from justice and deport illegal immigrants.

"It is a huge job and depends if the army has the force to do it," an official in Sabha said. Little details have been given about how security forces will go about the plan. Mr Zeidan has said agreement was made in principle with the countries he visited to secure Libya's borders.

"Libya is worried about Gaddafi supporters outside, especially since the deterioration of the situation in Mali," Anis Rahmani, security expert and editor of Algeria's Ennahar daily, said. "Coordination between Algeria and Libya is good."