* Splits, divisions complicate Hariga port talks
* Eastern oil terminals targeted by other protests
* Weak Tripoli government struggles to impose demands
By Ulf Laessing
TOBRUK, Libya, March 5 If anyone understands the
deep divisions over how to resolve the blockade of Libya's
eastern Hariga oil port, it is the family of local mayor Faraj
Protesters shuttered the 110,000-barrel-per-day port last
summer to pressure a government struggling to impose order three
years after Muammar Gaddafi's demise.
The dispute is one of many involving oil facilities of the
OPEC country that have contributed to a cut in petroleum output
to 230,000 bpd from 1.4 million bpd in July. Three other ports
in the east have also stopped exporting.
For Yassin, the shutdown brings trouble, cutting off vital
state revenues and eroding the budget just when the government
needs all the help it can get in Libya's stuttering transition
But for his brother-in-law, Mansour al-Salhin, the protest
is a justified battle against a central government that he feels
has taken oil revenues at the expense of his hometown Tobruk and
The Hariga conflict highlights the chaos in the North
African oil producer since the fall of Gaddafi, and the
complications for its fragile government in overcoming protests
holding its vital oil industry hostage.
Already battling to end separate protests at three key
eastern ports nearby, Libya's government has been trying to
negotiate a deal to overcome the blockade at Hariga and revive
falling oil revenues vital for public spending.
But talks have collapsed after the protest camp fractured
into rival groups with different demands. The question of
whether oil should flow or not is dividing families, protest
leaders and oil workers in the city near the Egyptian border.
Tobruk is dominated by tribes vying over a bigger slice of
the vast oil wealth and regional power.
Town council head Yassin agrees with the demands for more
regional authority and development, but opposes pressuring for
those rights by halting oil exports.
"We are not happy that the port is closed," he said, sitting
in his office in a luxury hotel near the port. "This has a
negative impact on all Libyans."
Yassin has been trying to negotiate an end of the protest
and even went with Prime Minister Ali Zeidan live on television
in October to announce Hariga would resume its work.
But his deal was killed by tribesmen who sidelined a
moderate leader to team up with former militia leader Ibrahim
Jathran, who have seized the three other eastern ports.
Jathran wants a greater oil share and more local autonomy,
difficult demands to deliver for a weak government. But his
Tobruk ally is tougher, demanding an end to the government and
the interim parliament, known as the General National Congress.
"We want the government and General National Congress to
go," said Salhin, a protest leader.
Some locals dismiss him as unpopular, but Salhin, who is
married to Yassin's sister, draws support from his dominant
Al-Abidat tribe. He walks around with his son, dressed in
military uniform, as bodyguard.
"Seventy percent of the oil comes from the east. We want our
share for Cyrenaica," said Salhin, referring to the historical
name of Libya's east. "I want our rights for Cyrenaica."
When asked whether talks with Tripoli might succeed he said:
"The government has not responded to our demands."
Jathran's troops in the other eastern ports -- Zueitina, Es
Sider and Ras Lanuf -- have also been in indirect negotiations
with Zeidan's government to end their protest. Their
self-appointed eastern region prime minister said earlier this
year a deal was close, but there is no sign of one yet.
Zeidan has repeatedly warned he may use force to end those
blockades, which are cutting off 600,000 bpd of oil export
capacity. But with no real army at his command, his government
is unlikely for the moment to deliver on those threats.
Jathran -- a former oil facilities guard commander --
defected with thousands of his troops to take over the three
ports now under his control. But he has been unable to deliver
on threats he will sell oil independently of Tripoli.
At Hariga, though, the military strength of the protesters
is less clear. But it does not take much to threaten
international oil tankers approaching Hariga.
Unlike the other seized eastern ports where former oil
guards block gates there are no armed protesters at Hariga. Oil
workers still go to work though there is little to do.
The two export jetties, now inhabited by cormorants, are
located at the end of a natural bay -- any docking tanker could
be easily shot at by trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns from
the opposite coast. Such gun trucks are commonly used by militia
brigades in lawless parts of Libya.
"There is no tanker going from here," Rajab Abdelrasol, the
terminal manager. "We cannot do anything with this political
Local military commanders dismiss Zeidan's threats to clear
blocked ports by force, even if they themselves oppose the
protest to halt oil exports.
"We can't prevent people from blockading tankers," said
Colonel Abdelnasser Shalsha, army operations commander in
Tobruk. "We cannot confront our own people."
His men lack the firepower to confront the protesters, he
said. "We don't have any heavy guns," he said.
SPLITS AND DIVISIONS
Located closer to Egypt's Cairo than Tripoli, Tobruk has
never got much attention from the capital, some 1,200 km away.
Gaddafi left schools and hospitals dilapidated in the city
of 300,000 inhabitants. During his four-decade rule, there was
just one weekly flight to Tobruk from the capital, according to
the airport director.
Years of neglect fuel autonomy fervour among locals who were
among the first to rise up against Gaddafi in 2011. One hotel
carries the picture of King Idris, who created a federal system
preceding Gaddafi, which many locals see as a model for their
call for devolving power.
And the local museum carries a portrait of Omar Mukhtar, a
freedom fighter against the Italian colonial rulers.
Talk among the crowds strolling on the central square at
night quickly turns to politics and many curse the government
and parliament in Tripoli.
"We want infrastructure, roads, schools," said Kamal Awad,
who works at the state oil firm. "We support the oil stoppage
because there is no transparency where the exports are going."
For the government and lawmakers trying to mediate the
biggest question is often who to talk to.
"We are not with Ibrahim Jathran," said Abdel-Jalil
al-Mazini, another Al-Abidat tribal leader who still supports
the blockade. "We want the United Nations to supervise oil
Mohammed Younis, a Tobruk lawmaker in the national assembly,
is sceptical that future talks will even make any headway with
so many protest demands.
"They all have different opinions and agendas," he said.
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Anna Willard)