Libya autonomy group challenges Tripoli

Libyan protesters hold the flag of the eastern Cyrenaica region during a demonstration calling for greater autonomy in the eastern city of Benghazi. (File photo: AFP)

An autonomy group in eastern Libya said on Tuesday it plans to invite foreign companies to buy oil from ports it has seized, challenging the government in Tripoli.

The announcement was made only hours after Libya's defense ministry said it would use force and destroy any tankers loading oil in the eastern ports in the region of Cyrenaica, despite them currently being under the control of armed protestors.

The autonomy group, currently in control of three ports, is led by tribal leader and 2011 war hero Ibrahim Jathran, who seemed undaunted by Tripoli's warning.

"We welcome global oil companies ... The oil security guards will guarantee the safety of tankers," said Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, prime minister of Jathran's self-declared eastern government.

On Monday, Libya's navy claimed it had fired shots at a tanker in the eastern Es-Sider port in the process of loading oil.

Barassi said his group had nothing to do with the tanker shot at by a Libyan navy vessel on Sunday on its way to Es-Sider. Tripoli claimed tanker had been bound to load oil at the seized port, but Barassi said this was a "lie."

Escalating tensions and recent confrontations have raised worries that Libya, also fighting another front against Islamist militias, will break apart as the eastern Cyrenaica and south Fezzan regions demand autonomy.

Barassi, speaking on pro-autonomy television station on Tuesday, said the group had no secession plans.

"We confirm we want to preserve Libya's territorial unity," he said, adding that it invited Tripoli to send a delegation to help oversee the proper sale of oil sales.

"We assure all Libyans that the sale of oil will be according to the law," he added.

The group is currently campaigning for sharing power between itself and the federal state of the oil wealth between the Cyrenaica and the west and southern Fezzan, as was the arrangement before former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's rule.

The three ports the group seized in August previously supplied Libya with 600,000 barrels a day.

The conflict is severely damaging oil revenues which help fund the nation's government and the import of wheat, among other things. The government recently announced it may not be able to pay public salaries which is expected to create more instability in the country.

(With Reuters)

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Last Update: 06:42 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
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