Libya anticipates release of oil ports, rejects autonomy chief

Libya's government denies it will share oil experts with autonomous movement

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Libya's government expects eastern tribes to reopen three oil ports this weekend as pledged but refuses to deal with an autonomy movement demanding a share of oil exports, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, tribal leaders blocking three eastern ports that had shipped around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil said they would end the stoppage on Sunday but some also demanded the government share oil exports.

Such seizures have slashed Libya's oil exports to 110,000 bpd, from more than 1 million bpd in July, and added to chaos in the North African country two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

The loss of oil has dried up the main source of budget revenues and dollars for food imports, forcing the government to seek loans or use its foreign currency reserves.

"We trust in the tribal leaders and important individuals who held talks with us in the past 10 days and reached this agreement," Zeidan told a news conference.

But he said the government refused to deal with the regional autonomy movement mainly responsible for the closures of the Ras Lanuf, Es-Sider and Zueitina ports.

Its leader Ibrahim Jathran warned on Tuesday after a meeting of eastern tribal leaders that oil terminals would resume work only if the government met his demands for a greater share of Libya's oil wealth and more political power.

"We communicate only with the tribal elders," Zeidan said when asked about Jathran's conditions.

He added that Tripoli did not recognise Jathran's movement campaigning for a federal system sharing power between the eastern Cyrenaica region, the west and Fezzan in the south, an
arrangement similar to the pre-Gaddafi era.

He said talks to end a strike at the southern El Sharara oilfield, which used to supply the 120,000-bpd Zawiya refinery, were continuing.

Pressure has been building on strikers paralysing oil and gas supplies across the desert nation, with power cuts also a result of the protests, according to the government.

Oil Minister Abdelbari al-Arusi said exports were only 110,000 bpd, compared with production of 250,000 bpd. Of the total, 120,000 bpd were going to the Zawiya plant and 20,000 bpd
to a refinery in Tobruk.

He said his ministry was ready to resume exports at the ports once strikers had left the premises.

Public Anger

Western powers worry Libya will slide into instability as Zeidan's government struggles to rein in militias and tribes who helped oust Gaddafi during the 2011 NATO-backed uprising but refuse to lay down their arms.

Zeidan has been counting on rising public anger as the government warns payment of public salaries will stop due to the loss of oil revenues if the blockages continue.

The OPEC producer has lost almost 10 billion Libyan dinars ($8.1 billion) due to the seizures since summer, state news agency Lana said.

Idris Abukhamada, head of the national oil guards and a member of the main tribe blocking the eastern ports, said he expected the terminals to reopen on Sunday as agreed.

Abukhamada said Jathran's conditions would not stand in the way. "The conditions are just cosmetic," he said, without elaborating.

Abukhamada was appointed by the Tripoli government after Jathran, the previous commander, defected in summer and seized the three ports with his heavily armed men.

He has been building a force from eastern tribes and trying to convince elders to stop Jathran. Many in the east respect Jathran, who was imprisoned under and helped topple Gaddafi, but
some dismiss Jathran as a warlord seeking political gain.

The oil force commander warned that tribal elders had agreed to consider as outcasts any relatives who still violated the law after the reopening of ports.

Even if the ports reopen, more trouble looms because the oil workers' union threatened on Tuesday to close them again unless the government met their demands for higher pay.

($1 = 1.2335 Libyan dinars)