* Struggle over premier post leaves Libya in limbo
* Political factions backed by ex-rebel brigades
* Negotiations also feed into oil sector chaos
By Patrick Markey and Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI, May 29 Libya stumbled deeper into chaos
on Thursday uncertain over who runs the country after rival
prime ministers both claimed legitimacy in a confrontation
threatening to turn into violence among rival factions.
Even by Libya's tumultuous standards, the North African oil
producing state has veered closer to its most dangerous crisis
in the three years since a NATO-backed uprising helped rebels
put an end to Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule.
After a contested vote in parliament three weeks ago,
businessman Ahmed Maiteeq was appointed as Libya's third prime
minister in two months with backing from Islamists and
independents in the splintered General National Congress (GNC).
On Wednesday, his predecessor acting Prime Minister Abdullah
al-Thinni refused to hand over power after questioning the
legality of Maiteeq's appointment by a parliament that many
Libyans blame for their slow democratic advance.
That political standoff is part of a broader and potentially
more explosive confrontation among the rival Islamist,
anti-Islamist and regional factions vying to shape Libya's
The two prime ministers were waiting for further decisions
from the GNC or a high court ruling on the election while a
special commission mediated between the two parties on Thursday,
officials and advisors said.
Addressing the country late on Wednesday, Thinni, a former
defense minister who weeks ago announced his resignation because
of an attempted attack on his family, dramatised the risks of a
failure of negotiations.
"Our government warns of the dangers facing our homeland
with political differences that may lead to a split in the
country, a resort to arms and even foreign intervention," he
said in a broadcast statement.
Four decades of Gaddafi rule and the three chaotic years
that have followed his demise have left Libya with few state
institutions that enjoy legitimacy and without a national army
to impose any form of stability.
Brigades of former rebel fighters, many with quasi-official
status as state security forces, have stepped into politics,
loosely allying themselves with rival blocks to become power
The risk of a broader armed confrontation rose this month
when a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, began a
self-declared campaign against extremists he accuses Islamist
parties in the GNC of allowing to flourish.
Irregular forces loyal to Haftar -- a mixture of militias,
regular army and air force units -- have bombed Islamist
militant bases in the eastern city of Benghazi twice since then,
most recently on Wednesday.
Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally who defected in the 1980s,
spent years in U.S. exile and returned for the 2011 revolt, also
claimed an attack by gunmen on parliament. He rejected Maiteeq
and told lawmakers to hand over power.
Rival Islamist armed militia, most allied with the Justice
and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim
Brotherhood, warned Haftar off, accusing him of plotting a coup
to overturn Libya's fragile transition.
Amid the standoff, negotiations over the premier's post are
Ahmed Lamine, Thinni's spokesman, said he would wait for a
ruling on a high court appeal made by lawmakers on the legality
of Maiteeq's election. A five-member commission of former
officials and scholars is also trying to mediate.
"What is going on is between the ex-prime minister Thinni
and the GNC. We are ready preparing our plans and meetings and
waiting to move into our offices," a Maiteeq spokesman said.
An early election is set for June 25 to elect a new House of
Representatives as a way to defuse the crisis.
But time is short with Tripoli tense, Benghazi under threat
of armed conflict and the budget still awaiting parliamentary
debate and a government stamp of approval.
"This is dangerous in that, who signs the cheques? Who is
running the country? We are getting to that point now," said one
Western diplomat. "There is a risk of real confusion over who is
NATO air strikes to halt Gaddafi's forces and help the
rebels were meant to be a "light touch" intervention after the
bloody years in Iraq and Afghanistan where a prolonged U.S.-led
military presence led to heavy casualties.
But without boots on the ground, Western governments have
become increasingly alarmed that Libya's growing instability
could spread through North Africa.
U.S., European forces have promised to train up several
thousand Libyan troops, but those efforts have been slowed by
turmoil, leaving irregular forces, often armed with
anti-aircraft canons, tanks and Grad rockets, as key players.
Two heavily armed, loose rival confederations -- Zintanis in
the west and Misratans based in the port town of Misrata -- and
their allies, both claim the mantle of revolutionary leadership
and have often challenged the state.
Zintan and its fiercely anti-Islamist Tripoli allies, the
Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades, are loosely allied with National
Forces Alliance movement while more Islamist-leaning Misrata
brigades have loosely backed the Justice and Construction Party.
But Libya's standoff is more complex, with loyalties in
armed groups crossing lines of regions, tribes, old Gaddafi
forces and new revolutionary brigades all laying claim to more
spoils of the war.
Haftar, the renegade general, has drawn anti-Islamist
militia brigades onto his side with his anti-extremist campaign
with many Libyans sick of their hardline message.
But the potential for mayhem is clear should negotiations
over the parliament and the prime minister's post fail.
The attack claimed by Haftar on Congress triggered two days
of chaotic melees, Grad rocket fire and armed clashes around
Tripoli involving rival militias and regular forces.
Nowhere is fallout from Libya's political and militia crisis
clearer though than in oil sector.
Since summer, a former rebel, Ibrahim Jathran, has occupied
four vital oil ports with thousands of his troops -- all but
shutting off crude exports -- to demand greater autonomy for his
self-declared Cyrenica government.
Jathran negotiated a deal with Thinni's government to bring
his blockade of ports steadily to an end and Libya's battered
oil exports back closer to 1.4 million barrels per day. Now with
Maiteeq poised to take over, that deal maybe off the table.
"The implications for the hydrocarbons sector are plain. For
explorers, there is no delta," North African analyst Geoff
Porter said. "The restoration of Libyan production and exports
is now much further off than it was two weeks ago."
(Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Paul Taylot)