Thousands of former supporters of Muammar Gaddafi who fled their town after revenge attacks will try to return next week, their leaders said on Wednesday, risking a confrontation with their neighbours.
Tawargha, a town about 250 km east of Tripoli, was ransacked and looted, and its residents forced to flee, in one of the worst cases of reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists since the Libyan leader was overthrown three months ago.
Elders from the town decided at a meeting in Tripoli that all the residents -- who they said number 30,000 and are scattered in camps and makeshift accommodation across Libya -- will go home on December 20.
Jaballah Mohammed, one of the delegates from the town who was at the meeting, appealed to the Libyan government to help the people of Tawargha return.
Please understand this request, he said. We are innocent and helpless ... The people of Tawargha were under Gaddafi's militias, we did not know anything about the revolution (against his rule).
But an official from the neighbouring town of Misrata, one of the centres of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion whose fighters carried out the reprisals in Tawargha, said it was too early for residents to go back.
It will be dangerous for them because everybody has weapons and we cannot guarantee that the people with weapons in their hands will not make trouble, said Fethi Bashaga, a member of the Misrata military council.
Nobody forced the Tawargha people to leave the city. They went of their own accord.
He said the Tawargha residents should wait until Libya's caretaker leadership, the National Transitional Council, organises their return as part of a programme of national reconciliation it launched this month.
All reconciliation should be organised by the state, Bashaga told Reuters by telephone.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED
International aid workers at the meeting in Tripoli also said a return to Tawargha next week could be risky.
If you were to go on the 20th, neither your safety nor your dignity can be protected by us, Joann Kingsley of the Danish Refugee Council told the meeting.
December 20 is only six days away. To organise the return of thousands of people to a destroyed place after a war takes much more time than six days.
People in Misrata accuse Tawargha of being complicit in a siege of their city by pro-Gaddafi forces which killed hundreds of civilians and fighters.
Rocket and artillery batteries stationed in Tawargha fired on residential districts of Misrata. Some people from Tawargha fought in the city in pro-Gaddafi units. Misrata residents allege that Tawargha men raped women in the city.
Deep-seated prejudices may also be a factor. Tawargha residents are dark-skinned, many descended from sub-Saharan African slaves, while almost everybody in Misrata is from Libya's lighter-skinned Arab majority.
International rights groups say some people from Tawargha may have committed crimes during the fighting in Misrata, but that the reprisals since then have swept up thousands of innocent people.
The attacks in Tawargha took some of the lustre off Libya's revolution, which had been feted by its Western backers for its proclaimed ideals of justice, tolerance and democracy.
One Tawargha resident, speaking at the meeting in Tripoli on Wednesday, said a delegation had been to see interim prime minister Abdurrahim El-Keib.
He said that for now he could not do anything about our problem, said the man, who did not give his name. So we have to sort the problem out ourselves. Our people are suffering.
(Additional reporting by Hisham El-Dani; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Robert Woodward)