x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

East Libya movement launches government, challenges Tripoli

Leaders of autonomy movement in Libya's oil-rich east have unilaterally declared a regional government.

TRIPOLI // Leaders of an autonomy movement in Libya’s oil-rich east have unilaterally declared a regional government, in a challenge to the weak central government as new violence erupted in the region.

The announcement on Sunday was a symbolic blow to efforts by the Tripoli government to reopen eastern oil ports and fields blocked since the summer by militias and tribes demanding a greater share of power and oil wealth.

It has no practical meaning but is sure to worsen ties between the east and Tripoli, which has rejected the self-rule notion.

Lawlessness has blighted large areas of Libya since the 2011 war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi. The government has been unable to rein in militia groups, armed tribes and radical Islamists.

This is especially true for eastern Libya, known as Cyrenaica, where tribes, activists and militias have been pushing for a federal system for sharing power with the west and southern Fezzan.

Leaders of the movement met in the small town of Ajdabiya, close to the oil port of Brega, to launch an autonomous government, supporters said. They named themselves the Barqa, or Cyrenaica, government.

A pro-federalist television station showed more than 20 ministers taking the oath at a podium decorated with a Cyrenaica flag.

They were joined by tribal militia leader Ibrahim Jathran, the former head of Libya’s Petroleum Protection Force in charge of guarding oil facilities. He defected in the summer and seized the biggest ports Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider with his troops.

Once a rebel combatting Qaddafi troops, he wore a business suit and a tie during the ceremony, standing next to the self-declared prime minister, Abd-Rabbo Al Barassi, a defected air force commander. Tribal leaders joined the ceremony.

The Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan had been seeking contact with the east in recent days to reopen blocked ports in an area home to 60 per cent of the country’s oil production.

Libya’s National Oil Corp said yesterday that the blockade of the main oil facilities in the east had reduced prodction by 80 per cent.

“Output is estimated to be running at 250,000 barrels a day,” down from 1.5 million bpd before the protests, said NOC official Mohamed Al Harairi.

He said exports from Al Hariga terminal in eastern Libya, which Mr Zeidan had said would resume by Monday, had not gone ahead for logistical reasons.

Mr Jathran, the tribal militia leader, and many others in the east accuse Mr Zeidan as well as Islamists in the General National Congress of corruption and failing to provide security since Qaddafi’s downfall.

In the regional capital Benghazi, where an attack on the US mission in September killed the US ambassador, a soldier was killed and another was wounded when a mine hidden in a rubbish bag exploded near an army checkpoint late on Saturday, a security source said.

In Benghazi’s biggest prison, a group of inmates overwhelmed a guard early on Sunday and started a fire. A security source said 15 prisoners were wounded during clashes with guards trying to restore order. One guard was wounded when gunmen opened fire from outside.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse