x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Council says it's Libya's sole representative

Libya's self-formed National Council meets for the first time and announces it is the "sole representative' of the country.

BENGHAZI, Libya // The national council formed by Libya's opposition forces in Benghazi met yesterday for the first time, declaring itself the sole representative of the country.

"The council declares it is the sole representative all over Libya," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the former justice minister in Col Muammar Qaddafi's government, told a news conference, reading from a prepared statement.

The National Libyan Council met in the city's main courthouse which has become the de facto headquarters of the local opposition. The 30 members were chosen from committees established after Col Qaddafi government's control of the east of the country collapsed.

While the identities of most of the council members are being kept secret for their own safety, Mr Jalil, one of the first high-profile figures to defect from the regime, was appointed committee chairman. Mr Jalil was also the first to announce the formation of a provisional eastern government, on February 27, just a day before the creation of the national council.

Abdelhafiz Ghoka, a Benghazi lawyer, was named the council's spokesman.

Following the meeting yesterday, Mr Jalil and Mr Ghoka said the council was opposed to any foreign military intervention. They also named two representatives in charge of foreign affairs and one in charge of the military.

The council "wants to be a player", said Eman Bugaghis, a spokeswoman for the opposition. "We are expecting the council to find a way to communicate with the outside world. We are also counting on the help of the Libyan diplomats who defected."

Abdulrahman Mohammed Shalgam, Libya's former ambassador to the UN, and Ali Al Awjali, the top Libyan diplomat in Washington, are two of the most prominent regime officials to have sided with the rebels. Rebels in eastern Libya have set up local councils to administer the cities that have fallen to the rebels.

"After the revolution, we found everything destroyed," said Faisal al Safi, an engineer and member of Benghazi's local council. "The regime erased all the infrastructures. We now have to rebuild a civil society and the basis of a state."

Benghazi's local council is divided into sub-committees, which are focusing on different aspects of daily city life: security, health, education, banking, finance, and religion. Mr al Safi is in charge of communication.

"We are looking for an alternative system, in case the old one collapses," he said. "The main switch is in Tripoli, we have to build our own network."

Meanwhile, hundreds of mourners gathered at a cemetery yesterday on the outskirts of the city to bury the dozens who died Friday in a suspicious arms dump explosion that flattened buildings, uprooted trees and torched fire engines

The double blast, which caused devastation for some 500 metres around, killed up to 34 people, according to a doctor's estimate. Mourners blamed the tragedy on Col Qaddafi and vowed that their uprising would succeed. But none of those spoken to were willing to give their full names, fearing reprisals and still terrified of Col Qaddafi.

"There will be rivers of blood. It won't be like in Tunisia and Egypt. How long will the West hold back and do nothing? People are asking why the West is watching without doing anything," said one man in jeans and a leather jacket. "For me, anything that flies overhead, they should shoot it down. Plain and simple," said the businessman, referring to the popular belief that the complex had been attacked from the air.

"We're not quite sure whether it was sabotage, an accident or an air strike, but nobody saw any planes," said Mustafa al Gherieni, a media organizer for the revolutionaries.

The commander of the military engineering headquarters, Maj Wanis Brahim Beleuwila, was inclined to blame sabotage by supporters of Col Qaddafi.

One resident, Mustapha Salah, 30, said the armoury housed explosives and munitions for anti-aircraft guns, rocket-launchers and light automatic weapons in 48 bunkers.

Three huge craters were all that remained of the underground bunkers, while only the foundations of the central structure still stood, along with the smoking wreckage of anti-aircraft batteries protecting the site. "A fire triggered a first explosion, then a second that was much more powerful," Mr Salah said.

In the city, most stores remain closed, but officials at the courthouse said there was no shortage of food, water or energy.

Yesterday, people were lining up in front of a branch of Al Wahda bank, in the centre of the city. They were there to collect their salaries. Banks have been working since the first days after the uprising.

"We asked all the managers to restart operations because we were under threat: no money means higher risk of looting in the city," said Mohammed Agila, 37, a member of the local banking committee.

In the first two days after the fall of Benghazi, banks allowed people to withdraw just 200 dinars (Dh660), but now things are back to normal.

"We are noticing now that businessmen and shop owners are depositing money again," said Mr Agila.

The local civil council in Benghazi meets every day to discuss the latest political, social and military developments. Yesterday the rebels retook the strategic oil city of Ras Lanuf. Heavy fighting is also still taking place in Zawiya, some 50km west of Tripoli.

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse