By Feras Bosalum
TRIPOLI, Dec 13 (Reuters) - A group that has seized oil ports as it seeks autonomy for East Libya said it would negotiate with government officials for a greater share of the country’s wealth but if its demands were not met by Sunday, it would try to sell crude on its own.
Libya is in turmoil with the government struggling to rein in militias that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but kept their guns and now control parts of the North African country.
A mix of Militias, tribesmen and officials have seized oilfields and export terminals across the country, bringing exports down to 110,000 barrels a day from more than 1 million bpd in July.
On Tuesday an eastern autonomy movement said it would end its seizure of three eastern ports, which previously accounted for around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of exports, if Tripoli allowed it to take a share of oil revenues.
The group, led by militia leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, which took the Ras Lanuf, Es-Sider and Zueitina ports to back its demands, faces mounting pressure to end the blockade as Libyans grow tired of outages and daily fuel shortages.
“We will hold talks with a government committee on Saturday,” said Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, prime minister of Jathran’s self-declared eastern government.
“If they agree on our demands, then the ports will reopen on Sunday. If they don’t agree, then we’ll insist on selling the oil without government coordination,” he told Reuters by telephone. He did not say which officials the group would be meeting in the east.
There was no immediate reaction from the central government. Officials in Tripoli have previously refused to recognise the self-declared eastern government and warned that the central government would attack any tanker trying to load oil at the seized ports.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said on Wednesday the government was in talks with tribal leaders in the east to get the ports reopened but refused to deal with Jathran’s group.
Oil exports are Libya’s lifeline and almost the only source of the dollars needed to fund imports of wheat and other basic foodstuffs. The government has warned it will not be able to pay public salaries if oil strikes continue.
The eastern movement is campaigning for a federalist state that would share power and wealth between the eastern Cyrenaica, western Tripoli and southern Fezzan regions.
Many in the east and elsewhere sympathise with such demands but Zeidan is counting on rising public anger over a loss of oil revenues and long queues at petrol stations.
Libya’s oil production was 220,095 bpd as of Wednesday, state news agency Lana said. Oil Minister Abdelbari al-Arusi said exports were 110,000 bpd, while the rest is being used to keep two refineries running.
Zeidan has been trying to get the ports reopened but has been weakened by political infighting with parliament and Islamist opponents. He has announced several times that Hariga port in Tobruk would resume exporting oil, but the terminal is still in the hands of tribesmen demanding autonomy.
One problem is that the government has to deal with a mix of protesters. Apart from Jathran’s movement, a separate set of tribal leaders has blocked Hariga in the far east.
Members of the Amazigh and Tibu, two minority groups, have also in the past blocked gas or oil supplies to back demands for their languages to be recognised in the new constitution - demands that are hard for a weak prime minister to meet.
The oil workers’ union for its part has warned that it might shut the eastern ports again after their reopening unless the government meets their financial demands. Tripoli had already agreed to increase oil workers’ pay by 67 percent from January.