Libya's NTC calls for calm as western clashes kill 17

An injured soldier from the ruling National Transitional Council lies on a stretcher on March 30 at a hospital in Sabha.

Story highlights

  • Local officials say 17 dead and dozens wounded
  • NTC leaders urge unity and "self-restraint"
  • Fights have raged between rival groups since the Gadhafi regime was toppled last year
  • People from the largely Berber town of Zuwara are clashing with residents of Arab towns
Libya's government called for calm Tuesday after heavy fighting between local militias around the Libyan coastal city of Zuwara killed at least 17 people and wounded dozens more.
The roughly 80 reported wounded filled Zuwara's hospital and included several civilians, said Ayoob Sufyan, a spokesman for the city government. Many of the wounded were severely hurt, and an appeal for blood donations went out on local radio.
"The situation is terrible," Sufyan told CNN as sporadi explosions and gunfire echoed in the background. "It is a real war now."
Sufyan called the violence the worst in that stretch of western Libya since the revolt that toppled longtime Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi in August. Fighting broke out several days ago between factions from Zuwara, a largely Berber city near the Tunisian border, and the nearby Arab-dominated towns of Raghdalin and Jamail.
The area has a history of ethnic enmity. Most of Tuesday's deaths were in the outlying towns, but at least seven were reported dead in Zuwara, Sufyan said.
Libya's National Transitional Council said it had dispatched a delegation of officials from Tripoli to seek an end to the fighting and a force of government troops to intervene and close off the area.
"The council calls on all Libyans, of all ethnicities, to preserve national unity and to exercise self-restraint, to rise above personal and insignificant differences and to not resort to weapons to resolve unresolved issues," the NTC said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.
Libyan authorities have been struggling to maintain peace in the country since the revolt that toppled Gadhafi in August. Weapons have flooded Libya's streets, and clashes have raged between rival groups -- including deadly tribal battles in the southern city of Sabha that left nearly 150 people dead last week.
The council said it would "work with all its power and strictly to pursue those who have caused these incidents that aim to destabilize the country."
The latest hostilities started when Zuwara fighters were among a group of more than 60 who were driving back home recently from the Tunisian border where they were posted, Sufyan said.
They were intercepted by a large number of armed men, whom Sufyan described as Gadhafi loyalists.
He said some of the Zuwara militiamen managed to flee, but 25 others were captured and held for more than two days.
Sufyan said the men were severely beaten and tortured by their captors, who called them "rats" and "NATO agents" -- terms that had been used by the Gadhafi regime to describe rebel fighters.
The NTC intervened and secured the release of the militiamen. But after they were freed, clashes broke out Sunday. And that fighting intensified Tuesday, as mortars and rockets rained down on the city. Sufyan said fighters from Zuwara were on the front line fighting back.
A Facebook page used by Gadhafi loyalists called "We Are All Moammar Gadhafi" is reporting shelling by "NATO rats" on Jamail and Raghdalin. Civilian casualties include a mother and her two children whose home in Jamail was shelled.
But Sufyan said the people of Zuwara are "more than friends" with other Arab cities, like neighboring Zawiya, and blamed the tensions on discrimination by the people of Jamail and Raghdalin.
Sufyan complained about what he said were empty promises by the Tripoli government and the National Transitional Council.
For months, the government has been promising to disarm the areas surrounding Zuwara after previous incidents, but nothing was done.
He said the people of Zuwara feel they have been abandoned because they are Berbers, not Arabs.
"Our people are dying, and they are doing nothing," Sufyan said.
Col. Ali al-Sheiki, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told CNN a military committee met Monday to resolve the situation around Zuwara. He said the government will intervene to stop the fighting and work on national reconciliation.
If the situation escalates after peaceful intervention, al-Sheiki said, the national army could be deployed to stop the fighting.
Al-Sheiki said it was not clear what the cause of the fighting was. He said that despite reports of Jamail and Raghdalin fighters being Gadhafi loyalists, "It is not 100% confirmed there are former regime elements in the towns."