Libyan conflict frays Tunisian nerves

2011-04-01 08:51

Ras Jdir, Tunisia – Brawling nearly erupted this week in Ben Guerdane, the last big town in Tunisia before the frontier with Libya, between backers and opponents of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi, armed with swords and clubs.

Just in time the Tunisian army stepped in but the crisis in Tunisia’s neighbour weighs more heavily on the country with every passing day.

On Tuesday, a firework thrown by a young boy created panic in a nearby barracks and armoured vehicles were deployed.

For some time Ben Guerdane, 560km southeast of Tunis, has had to live with the demonstrations and sporadic frictions between Libyans of differing loyalties who eye each other up and exchange insults.

The crisis arising from the Libyan conflict has plunged the town, which has always lived off trade with Libya, into deep economic gloom and local people are finding it increasingly hard to put up with the “export” of the conflict into their part of the world.

Seated on the terrace of a cafe in the square a young Tunisian erupted at the latest display by the rival Libyan camps.

“You are welcome here but we don’t want your problem here and the only flag we want to see is the Tunisian one,” he said.

Evidence of this exasperation came when Tunisians from a local committee set up to “protect the revolution” blockaded Libyan tankers that had crossed the border to fill up with fuel on the Tunisian side, forcing them to retreat.

Some 30km from Ben Guerdane the frontier post of Ras Jdir is the place to take the temperature of the crisis that has engulfed Libya since the middle of February.

More than 150 000 Libyans have flocked through in the last six weeks to find refuge in a Tunisia that may have undergone a revolution, but remains calm.

It was through here that Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa passed on his way into Tunisia and then defection to Britain.

It is here, too, that more and more Libyan families are arriving in vehicles crammed with furniture and personal effects. They are clearly planning to stay for a long while.

The Tunisian civil defence authorities said yesterday that more than 1 200 Libyans had crossed in the last 24 hours.

The luckiest families find accommodation with friends or relatives, or in hotels, or rent somewhere to live. Others head for the transit camp at Choucha, 7km from the border.

For the most part the visitors do not want to talk about what is happening back home.

But some truck drivers seeking fruit, vegetables and pasta in Tunisia will talk: food prices in Libya have rocketed, one told AFP.

“A litre of soybean oil has almost doubled, other foodstuffs are up by 30% percent,” said the driver from the town of Sabratha, 70km west of Tripoli, coming to pick up a load of tomatoes.

Inevitably street vendors have flocked to Choucha to set up a miniature souk where tea and sandwiches are on sale.

The rate of arrivals has dropped off since the start of the month but the various medical teams at the camp are readying for the worst, where new tents are being put up.

“We have beefed up our team with 21 Moroccan doctors and supplies, we are treating 400 people a day, most of them suffering from the change of climate, upset stomachs, fatigue or stress and anxiety,” a senior Moroccan doctor told AFP. 

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