Fears that unilateral declaration of a semi-autonomous region in oil-rich east by tribes and militias in city where the rebellion began may herald post-Qaddafi carve-up of the country.
Benghazi in political split from rest of Libya
TUNIS // Tribal and militia leaders in Benghazi declared Libya's oil-rich east a semi-autonomous region yesterday in what some fear could be the first step in carving up Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
The new region, known as Barqa, would cover almost half the country, from central Libya to the Egyptian border in the east and down to the borders with Chad and Sudan in the south.
The declaration reflects a broader debate in Libya on how to balance central and regional power after four decades of top-down, and often capricious, rule by Qaddafi, said Henry Smith, a Libya analyst at the British risk assessment firm Control Risks.
It also underscores the weakness of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), struggling to establish its authority over a plethora of regional and ethnic groups and militias.
Militias from Misurata and Zintan remain parked in the Libyan capital, having rolled in to defeat Qaddafi's forces.
Leaders in Benghazi, where the rebellion last year began, named Amhed Al Zubair, Libya's longest-serving political prisoner under Qaddafi and a member of the NTC, to head a governing council for the region.
It remains unclear what the autonomous region's borders will be or how it will be ruled, although Mr Zubair has pledged that his council will defer to the NTC in matters of foreign affairs.
"This is very dangerous, a blatant call for fragmentation. We reject it in its entirety," said Fathi Baja, head of the political committee of the NTC. "We are against divisions and against any move that hurts the unity of the Libyan people."
Representatives of tribal leaders, militia commanders and politicians who made the declaration in Benghazi said it was not intended to divide the country and they want their state to be part of a united Libya.
Leaders in Benghazi had previously called for Libya's oil ministry to be returned to the city from Tripoli, where Qaddafi had moved it during his rule.
Much of Libya's oil infrastructure is focused on Benghazi, which is also home to the country's largest oil company.
But it is too early to gauge the effect on oil markets of a semiautonomous region centred on the city. Mr Smith, the analyst, points out that leaders in Jalu, an oil town in the strategic Sirte basin, have opposed creating such a region.
Some of the pipelines feeding Benghazi flow through Jalu's district, according to Abdullah Bin Idriss, a member of the town's local council. If Benghazi declares autonomy, "we will turn off their oil", he said.
The interim central government based in the capital Tripoli has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of a partly autonomous eastern region, and warned it could lead to the break-up of the North African nation of 6 million.
Although Libya has announced an electoral law for voting in June to create a 200-member national assembly, electoral districts and seat allocation are still being hammered out.
"The process continues to face obstacles, as different regions feel they are not adequately represented," Mr Smith said. "But it's largely conducted behind the scenes, within and between the NTC and interim government."
That wrangling harks back to Libya's unification as an independent state after the eviction of Italian colonists during the Second World War.
During a year-and-a-half of negotiations and horse-trading, representatives from across Libya guided by United Nations diplomats constructed a federalised country under the rule of a pro-western king, Idris, from Benghazi.
After toppling Idris in 1969, Qaddafi aggravated old divisions by lavishing state wealth on Tripoli and his home town, Sirte, while neglecting Benghazi.
NTC and interim government leaders say Libya's new government will become more decentralised, but reject federalism giving regions more independence.
"We do not need federalism because we are heading towards decentralisation and we don't want to go back 50 years," the prime minister, Abdurraim El Keib, said on Monday.
The Benghazi move also illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses in post-Gadhafi Libya - the lack of political institutions.
Over 42 years in power, Qaddafi stripped the country of any credible representative bodies to concentrate power in his own hands.
As a result, since his fall in August and death in October, towns, cities, tribes and militias across Libya have largely taken authority into their own hands, acting on their own.
The local power centres - sometimes competing - have confused and often thwarted the NTC's attempts to establish any national control.
* With reporting by the Associated Press