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Libya rebels say oil crisis can be resolved, but no end in sight

Feb. 5, 2014 at 12:55 PM   |   Comments

TRIPOLI, Libya, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Eastern separatists blockading three of Libya's oil export terminals say the six-month-old crisis crippling the country's energy industry could be resolved within weeks. But there's little sign of any breakthrough.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said Monday he's ordered the army, a force that has still to coalesce as a state institution capable of protecting the state, to lift the blockade of the ports of Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina that began in July 2013.

But on Tuesday the military said it had received no orders, from Zeidan or the Defense Ministry, to move against the rebels holding the ports through which the bulk of Libya's oil exports pass.

"If we receive any orders, the matter will be studied at that time," said army spokesman Ali Alsheikhi -- a reply that suggested the army doesn't seem to be in any hurry to confront the heavily armed rebels in the east.

Analysts say sending in the army risks an encounter in which the military could come off worst, which would dangerously undermine what authority Zeidan, leader of a small liberal party, has been able to muster in the two chaotic years since rebel forces toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in a NATO-assisted uprising.

U.S. forces are currently training Libyan recruits, but the military is far from an effective fighting force. Its main problem is the lack of experienced soldiers.

Many of those who served in Gadhafi's armed forces and survived the eight-month civil war in 2011 have quit, despite appeals by successive postwar governments.

This has bolstered the various militias who now effectively control most of the country and frequently take the law into their own hands -- as did the eastern separatists centered on the city of Benghazi, a longtime Islamist stronghold that was the crucible of the rebellions against Gadhafi.

The rebels holding the eastern ports are demanding autonomy for their region, known as Cyrenaica, which holds about two-thirds of Libya's oil reserves, estimated at 76 billion barrels. They're the largest in Africa and the fifth largest in the world.

The government says the blockade has slashed Libya's oil production to around 200,000 barrels per day from around 1.6 million bpd, with exports, the country's economic life, reduced to a trickle via smaller western terminals.

That has cost the country around $10 billion in oil revenue, by Tripoli's estimate, and forced the government to use more than $7 billion in foreign reserves.

The eastern rebels, who recently declared their own government in Cyrenaica, also want a more equitable sharing of oil revenues and an end to the rampant corruption that plagued Gadhafi's 42-year regime.

They want a return to the governmental system that existed before Gadhafi seized power in September 1969, when Libya was split into three regions, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the southern deserts.

Zeidan's precarious position was underlined last week when five Islamist members of his cabinet quit to protest his government's failure to impose order in a country that's been gripped by anarchy since Gadhafi was overthrown and killed, with armed tribal and ethnic militias taking over whole regions as their fiefdoms.

Zeidan's troubles mounted Jan. 18, when the Tripoli government declared a state of emergency in the Sebha region of the south after pro-Gadhafi fighters of the ethnic Tebu tribe seized the Tamanhint air force base amid clashes with rival Arab clans.

A sizable portion of Libya's oil lies in the south. The region's been periodically torn by tribal fighting, but the flood of weapons that spread across the country after Gadhafi's downfall and the security vacuum that followed has exacerbated such rivalries.

Analysts say the only sign that the oil crisis might be moving toward a resolution lie in reports that Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former rebel commander who leads the eastern separatists, mainly former members of the 30,000-strong Petroleum Protection Force, is losing support as the stand-off drags on.

"I see progress with the state, the government," Abb-Rabbo al-Barassi, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Cyrenaica government, told reporters last week. He said a deal could be only weeks away.

That may be a fragile hope. But eastern tribal chiefs are reported to be turning against Jathran as an ambitious warlord seeking to claw his way to power.

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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