When 26-year-old Yussef heard about clashes in the Libyan oasis city of Sabha, he wasted no time in picking up a rifle and heading across the desert to support his fellow Tibu fighters.
Yussef said he felt compelled to make the 150km drive from the southern town of Murzuq to stand up for his Tibu people, a black African ethnic group, when it fought a local Arab militia for six days last month.
"There is no strong government to protect us, our families," he said, pointing to bullet-scarred buildings in a mainly Tibu neighbourhood of Sabha. "I had to come to help my people defend themselves," said Yussef, who declined to give his full name.
While the opposing sides agreed to end the fighting after about 150 people died, residents fear it will reignite even though the army was sent to restore calm in the desert city. Woman and a boy look at the damage done to their home after recent fighting, in the neighbourhood of Tayuri in the southern Libyan city of Sabha. (Photo:Reuters)
Woman and a boy look at the damage done to their home after recent fighting, in the neighbourhood of Tayuri in the southern Libyan city of Sabha. (Photo:Reuters)
Long-standing rivalries, divided communities and plentiful weapons are convulsing Libya as the interim government struggles to impose its authority and secure peace among the country's ethnic groups.
Violence in the Saharan south and in western Libya have shown how volatile the country remains six months after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, who had long played off one tribe or clan against the other to weaken their power.
Using threats of violence, awarding economic privileges and exploiting family loyalties to divide and rule, Gaddafi ensured that tensions between rival groups persisted.
In the south, where tribal ties are far more powerful than on the Mediterranean coast, porous borders with neighbouring countries, discontent and the availability of arms make the region one of the biggest potential problems for the government.
Gaddafi was always quick to end any ethnic clashes in the desert region and in 2009 he put down a tribal rebellion with helicopter gunships. But Libya's new rulers are weak and often out-gunned by the militias they are trying to control.
Like most of the confrontations that erupt in Libya, the Sabha clashes began with an incident which quickly escalated in the absence of any proper security force.
Oasis farmers by tradition, the Tibu supported the rebel side in last year's uprising against Gaddafi. Their opponents are ethnic Arabs who see the Tibu, a group that also lives across the border in Chad and Niger, as outsiders.