Libya's Berber to boycott committee drafting constitution

TRIPOLI Wed Nov 13, 2013 5:53am EST

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's Berber minority will boycott a committee to draft a new national constitution, Berber leaders and the election commission said, in a move that complicates attempts to end oil and gas protests.

Members of the Berber, or Amazigh, minority have halted gas exports to Italy and also stopped a part of Libyan oil exports by occupying the Mellitah port in western Libya to demand more rights for their long-oppressed people.

The closure of the Mellitah complex, co-operated by Italy's ENI and Libya's National Oil Corp (NOC), has complicated the government's attempts to recover oil production, already curtailed for months by protests at eastern ports

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi two years ago, the Amazigh have demanded their language to be guaranteed in the constitution which will be drafted by a special body in a step in the country's transition to democracy.

But government attempts to end the Mellitah protest appear to be stalling after the Amazigh High Council, which represents their interests - boycotted elections to create the 60-member national committee drafting the new constitution.

More than 660 candidates registered, among them around 60 women, but no Amazigh candidates had been listed despite government attempts to negotiate, the High National Election Commission head, Nuri al-Abbar, told Reuters.

Abbar said he said he would keep open the list for the Berbers open "a day or two" before preparing for the vote.

"At the end we cannot wait any longer," he said. "We need dialogue. We need a solution."

The Amazigh were supposed to get two seats assigned on the body, as do the Tibu and Tuareg minorities, which registered candidates. Six are reserved for women.

The General National Congress (GNC) assembly, Libya's parliament, debated Amazigh demands again on Tuesday but reached no agreement, GNC spokesman Omar Humeidan told reporters.

Attempts to write a new constitution have been repeatedly delayed because of political in-fighting within parliament, which was elected for an 18-month term last July in Libya's first free election in nearly 50 years.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government and nascent armed forces are struggling to contain rival militias, former fighters who helped oust Gaddafi and Islamist militants who have used Libya's turmoil to gain a foothold.

Abbar said the vote on the constitution might take place in December or January, depending on logistics.

The committee will be split equally between Libya's three regions - Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. The model resembles the committee that drafted Libya's pre-Gaddafi constitution, implemented when it became an independent state in 1951.

To Libya's east, protesters are also demanding more recognition in the new constitution and autonomy from Tripoli's central government. A Cyrenaica movement has declared itself autonomous, controlled oil ports and set up its own oil firm.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Editing by Patrick Markey and Angus MacSwan)

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