Militia leaders declare autonomy in east Libya

A man holds a placard, which reads: "The division of Libya, betrayal of the blood of the martyrs", during a protest against transforming Libya into a federal state, in Benghazi 5 March 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Esam Al-Fetori)

Published Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tribal and militia leaders declared Libya's oil-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica as autonomous on Tuesday, raising fears the country may break up in the wake of NATO's intervention last year that ousted former ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

At a conference attended by about 3,000 people in Benghazi, the major eastern city and cradle of an eight-month uprising against Gaddafi that ended in his capture and killing, they also called for a return to federalism in Libya.

"A federal system is the choice of the region" of Cyrenaica, which stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border in the east, the leaders said in a joint statement.

"The interim council of Cyrenaica was established under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi to manage the region's affairs and defend the rights of its population," read the statement, which was posted online.

Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a member of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), was elected leader of the region.

The newly created body will work within the framework of Libya's interim government, which it considers to be "the symbol of the country's unity, and its legitimate representative in international forums."

The proponents of autonomy say the move derives its legitimacy from the 1951 constitution, which was adopted under the monarchy of King Idris and which divided Libya into three states – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

Senussi is a relative of the late king and was the longest-serving political prisoner during the Gaddafi regime.

"This conference resulted in the choice of a type of government that is suitable to the Libyan people, especially in the Cyrenaica region," said Abu Bakr Bayira, who has been spearheading the movement.

Advocates of federalism say it will prevent the east from being marginalized as was the case in the past, while opponents fear the initiative will split the country and stand in the way of reconciliation.

Several Libyan cities, including Benghazi, have witnessed rallies rejecting the federal system of government, with banners and slogans emphasizing national unity and state-building, and stressing that Tripoli is the only capital.

Senior officials in Tripoli, including interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil and interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib, have flatly rejected the federalist project, promoting a program of decentralization instead.

Abdel Jalil told AFP on Monday that calls for the implementation of a federal system did not represent a major source of concern to his government because "Libyans fought for a united Libya."

During the program "Meet the Minister," broadcast on state TV on Monday, Kib flatly rejected calls to fashion Libya into a federation.

"We do not need federalism because we are heading towards decentralization and we don't want to go back 50 years," he said without elaborating.

His address came after the interim government held an emergency session on Sunday to discuss a bill proposing the principle of decentralization.

More than 50 local councils are reviewing the project, Abdel Jalil said.

On Tuesday, also in Tripoli, Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal said the interim government saw "no reason" for federalism in Libya.

"We have no reason for federalism because Libya does not group different peoples or religions," he said, adding that this type of government is not always successful.

Western intervention in the Libyan crisis in 2011 brought an influx of weapons, empowering militias that threaten to destabilize the country and fragment it into semi-autonomous regions.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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