TRIPOLI Libyan rebels controlling three oil export ports said on Saturday they were ready to negotiate with the government over ending their six-month blockade if Tripoli abandoned plans for a military offensive.
Libyan officials on Wednesday gave the armed protesters two weeks to clear the ports they have seized, or face a military strike. Pro-government and rebel forces clashed briefly this week in central Sirte city linking western and eastern Libya.
The rebels, who are calling for a greater share in the OPEC nation's oil wealth, managed last week to load oil on to a tanker, which escaped the Libyan navy. The incident embarrassed the weak central government and prompted parliament on Tuesday to vote the country's prime minister out of office.
Abb-Rabbo al-Barassi, the eastern autonomy movement's self-appointed "prime minister", told Reuters by phone that talks could only begin if the central government withdrew any troops it had sent to central Libya to confront them.
"This is the condition," he said.
He also said the tanker that had loaded oil last week at one of the rebel-held ports had reached its destination, though he declined to say where. He said more ships were expected at the seized ports.
Earlier on Saturday, he gave a speech on the rebel-controlled television channel showing him in front of several vessels docking in what the station said was Es Sider port, from where the first tanker sailed. Those details could not immediately be independently confirmed.
The Libyan navy lost contact with the North Korean-flagged tanker after firing on it on Monday or Tuesday, officials said. The tanker's exact whereabouts since then have not been confirmed by Libyan officials.
The standoff over control of Libya's oil is part of wider turmoil that has engulfed the vast North African country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi nearly three years ago.
Since then the government and nascent army have struggled to control brigades of former anti-Gaddafi fighters who have refused to disarm and have used their military muscle to make political demands on the state, often by targeting the oil sector.
(Reporting by Feras Bosalum; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Patrick Markey and Susan Fenton)