The Ras Jedir crossing on the Tunisian Libyan border was briefly closed by the Libyan authorities after four Libyan customs agents and twelve Tunisian nationals were abducted by masked gunmen on the Libyan side of the border. Media reports indicate the twelve Tunisians, abducted late Thursday may have been taken to the Libyan coastal city of Zouara, the identities and motives of their abductors remains unknown.
On Friday night residents of Ben Guerdane (Governorate of Medenine) had set up roadblocks to prevent Libyan vehicles from returning to Libya in protest of the treatment and conditions faced by Tunisian traders in Libya. Initial reports have not stated which region(s) of Tunisia the twelve abducted Tunisians, described as ‘returning workers’ were attempting to return home to.
Nessma TV reported the closure lasted six hours and a few hundred vehicles attempting to enter Tunisia were blocked on the Libyan side, but that the flow of traffic had been restored.
In recent months several similar protests and harassment of Libyan vehicles by Ben Guerdane residents have been sparked by border closures and have prompted retaliatory prolonged border closures by the Libyan authorities at Ras Jedir.
Cycle of Social Unrest in Ben Guerdane Since March Attack
Upon the expiration of a fifteen day closure of the entire Libyan-Tunisian border, ordered unilateral by Tunisian authorities after the Ben Guerdane attack, the Libyan authorities refused to reopen the border initially claiming they had not been notified by the Tunisian authorities that the border would be reopened. Libyan vehicles were allowed into Tunisia and were subjected to road blocks and harassment which prompted Khalifa Gwhell, the western Libyan Prime Minister at the time, to declare the border would remain closed to Tunisians until the security of Libyans could be guaranteed.
Regular traffic only resumed in May when a Libyan delegation headed by the mayor of Zouara (where the twelve Tunisians are believed to have been taken) and a Tunisian delegation headed the Governor of Medenine reached an agreement on a single customs duty for goods. That accord was implemented after a delay of several days by the Libyan authorities.
A similar agreement in April, also reached by officials from Medenine and Zoura, fell apart when the Libyan authorities initially only allowed passenger traffic through, prompting a general strike in Ben Guerdane called by the regional branch of the UGTT (Tunisian General Trade Union) on April 26, demanding the Tunisian authorities push for commercial traffic to be restored. In the days after the strike and with commercial traffic still held up protesters erected roadblocks in Ben Guerdane and its outskirts to prevent Libyan vehicles from taking roads further into Tunisia.
On April 29 the Libyans at the border again announced Ras Jedir was again closed to all traffic by the Libyan authorities.
In May, in the days before the crossing was reopened, a convoy of around one hundred vehicles of Tunisians from Ben Guerdane smuggling various merchandise from Libya were stopped by the Tunisian Army after trying to breach a recently completed 250 km ‘security barrier’ Tunisia built along a portion of the Libyan border. Protesters in Ben Guerdane blocked roads, burned tires and occupied the municipal government offices headquarters forcing local officials to be evacuated under police escort. The majority of the vehicles were then allowed to pass but the Tunisian Army refused access to 36 of the vehicles transporting gasoline.
The Regional secretary general of the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) in Medenine, Mohsen Lachiheb, called the continued holding of the vehicles smuggling gasoline ‘irresponsible’ considering the army had allowed the other vehicles to pass and called for a general strike which took place on Wednesday, May 11. The UGTT’s call for a general strike, though ostensibly placing it on the side of smugglers, brought form to social unrest which could easily have morphed into further clashes with security forces.
Smuggling, along with legal cross border trade through Ras Jedir, remains one of the only sources of income in Ben Guerdane one of Tunisia’s poorest cities in one of its most economically neglected regions. Previous extended closures of cross border traffic have resulted in unrest and even rioting as in January of 2013 when protesters in Ben Guerdane burned a police station and cars demanding the end of another border closure and again in February 2014.