(Adds colour with return of rebel fighters, background)
By Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI, April 1 A rebel group in eastern Libya
has agreed with the government to end its seizure of vital oil
ports within days, a senior leader told Reuters on Tuesday,
raising hopes for an end to an eight-month stalemate that has
dried up state income and fuelled chaos.
There was no immediate comment from the Tripoli government
which has been trying since summer to end the blockage of three
eastern ports, which previously accounted for more than 600,000
barrels a day of oil exports.
The oil conflict is just one aspect of the turmoil in the
OPEC producer where the weak central government is unable to
control militias that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but
refuse to disarm and are trying to grab a share of power or oil
Still, markets are likely to remain sceptical about whether
the oil ports will finally reopen after a similar deal fell
through in December at the last minute.
Talks with the eastern rebels had moved forward after the
U.S. Navy captured a tanker that had loaded oil at a rebel port,
killing the hopes of rebel leaders to sell crude bypassing
Tripoli and pressuring them to agree on a deal.
The government had earlier met a rebel demand by releasing
three of its fighters who had boarded the tanker at Es Sider,
one of three ports seized by the group in August to press for
autonomy and a greater share of oil wealth.
"The oil port issue will be solved within days," Abb-Rabbo
al-Barassi, self-declared prime minister of the rebel group,
said. "We agreed on all issues with the government in Tripoli."
A government delegation would visit the group's home base
Ajdabiya in eastern Libya within two days to hammer out the
details, he told Reuters by phone. He gave no details.
The group's top leader Ibrahim Jathran had minutes earlier
told a rebel television station his group had reached a solution
benefiting the people of Cyrenaica, the east's historic name,
and "all honorable Libyans".
"This agreement will upset all those who don't want the good
for Libya and its people but it will make happy all national
thinking Libyans. That's important for us. That's what we strive
for," Jathran said in a speech lasting eight minutes.
He gave no details or date but swapped his often martial
tone for a more conciliatory one, addressing "all Libyans" and
stressing the need for consensus and stability.
Jathran repeated the rebel demands for giving the east a
share of oil and combatting oil corruption but also talked about
reaching out to all regions and cities to build a stable Libya.
Western powers worry the conflict over oil will fuel
instability or even break up the vast desert country as many in
the east complain of decades of neglect at the hand of western
cities such as the capital Tripoli or the main port Misrata.
Jathran mentioned his group's desire to reinstate the 1951
constitution from the era of King Idris, who had preceded
Gaddafi, and introduced a federalist system sharing power
But compared to other speeches, Jathran focused this time on
"This night I'm addressing the people of Libya as a whole to
talk about some truths and announce some joyous issues not only
for Cyrenaica but the whole of Libya," a clean-shaven Jathran
said, dressed in a suit and tie - in contrast to his days as
rebel commander while fighting Gaddafi in 2011, when he wore a
military uniform and sported a beard.
Jathran, who is in his early 30s, did not mention a previous
demand to the government to return the oil tanker.
A deal, if confirmed, would not necessarily end the shutdown
of several oilfields in western Libya by a different set of
In contrast to the east, protesters at western oil
facilities such as the closed El Sharara field are divided into
in small groups with different demands and lacking joint
Output has fallen to around 150,000 bpd from 1.4 million bpd
in July when a wave of protests started across Libya. The loss
of oil revenues has triggered the worst budget crisis for
decades with the central bank burning through its reserves to
keep the country afloat.
With no real army, Libyan authorities are struggling to
control militias and armed tribesmen who helped to oust Gaddafi
in the 2011 civil war but have become political players
controlling territory and seizing oil facilities at will.
On Monday, Libya's attorney general ordered the release
of three rebel fighters in a gesture to the rebels.
Three weeks ago, the rebel militia embarrassed Tripoli by
loading crude onto a tanker named "Morning Glory". U.S. special
forces troops later stormed the ship in international waters and
returned it to Libya.
Government and the parliament had told the rebels to
negotiate an end to their port blockade or face a military
But government officials and key lawmakers have stopped
talking about military action for more than a week, paving the
way for more talks.
The army would have struggled to tackle Jathran's forces
anyway as they are battle-hardened from the civil war.
The rebel television station showed Jathran's men giving the
three fighters heroes' welcomes after they arrived at Benghazi
airport. Dozens of vehicles accompanied them from the eastern
city to Ajdabiya, as fighters fired their Kalashnikovs into the
His forces and other militias refuse to surrender
their weapons and often use force or control of oil facilities
to make demands on a state whose army is still being trained by
Those governments, which backed NATO air strikes to help the
2011 anti-Gaddafi revolt, are pressing the factions to reach a
political settlement. But Libya has lurched from crisis to
crisis over the last year.
Oil production has fallen to a trickle due to the
port seizures and protests at major oil fields.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfalli
and Feras Bosalum; editing by Andrew Roche)