Leaders in eastern Libya declare their region semiautonomous


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REPORTING FROM TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- Leaders from eastern Libya declared their oil-rich region semiautonomous Tuesday, a provocative move probably aimed at extracting concessions from the nation’s interim authorities that also highlights widening divisions in a country still reeling from civil war.

About 3,000 tribal, political and militia leaders attended a ceremony in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the symbolic heart of last year’s insurgency, and called for a return to a federal system of governance not seen since Moammar Kadafi took power in a 1969 coup.


The declaration underscores the growing discord in Libya, as the Transitional National Council, seen as increasingly corrupt and incompetent, struggles to weigh the competing demands of the country’s fractious constituency. Eastern Libya had been marginalized by Kadafi for four decades and the region’s leaders want more control at a time when the country of 6 million is torn by tribal differences and roving militias.

The transitional council blamed the move by eastern leaders on outside meddling.

“I regret to say that these [foreign] countries have financed and supported this plot that has arisen in the east,” council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil told reporters. “I call on my brothers, the Libyan people, to be aware and alert to the conspiracies that are being plotted against them and to be aware that some people are dragging the country back down into a deep pit.”

The plan calls for the east to run its own affairs, but to leave the national army, foreign policy and oil resources under the control of the central government in the capital, Tripoli.

It is unclear what impact the declaration will have. The region’s leaders have no official status, but their demands resonate in the east, which is suspicious of political power emanating from the west.

Sheik Ahmed Senussi, a member of the transitional council and relative of the former monarch, was declared leader of the eastern council. The region is bordered by Chad and Sudan in the south and Egypt in the east.

Eastern Libyans have long complained of economic discrimination at the hands of Tripoli. Fear of continued marginalization in the region, also known as Cyrenaica, has persisted while calls for federalism have become more pronounced.


The eastern council recognized the transitional council as “the symbol of the country’s unity, and its representative in international forums,” but added that a “federal system is the choice of the region.”

Since the capture and execution of Kadafi in October, Libya has in effect split into a series of fiefdoms protected by local militias, as rival groups and leaders seek to ensure representation in Libya’s emerging political order. Much of the problem stems from Kadafi’s rule, which left the country with weak and poorly represented political institutions.

Last month, about 100 militias from the country’s west announced the formation of a collective, which was interpreted as both a challenge to the transitional council and an essential part of negotiations between the regions and the central government. The transitional council has acknowledged its failures in unifying the country and moving beyond Kadafi’s rule.

“The government is not doing its job. My evaluation of its performance is not good,” Abdel-Rahim Keeb, prime minister of the interim government, said on state TV. “The steps we are taking are slow.”


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-- Glen Johnson