* Amazigh or Berber protesters demand more ethnic rights
* Want safeguards in Libya's planned constitution
* Protests control Mellitah port supplying gas to Italy
* Libya struggling to contain militias in eastern ports
By Ulf Laessing
MELLITAH PORT, Libya, Nov 8 After seizing a
Libyan port and halting oil exports, former army officer Adel
al-Falu has set his sights on a more drastic protest to win
rights for his ethnic Amazigh people - shutting off the gas tap
which supplies Italy.
Long oppressed by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the
Amazigh minority, or Berbers, were quick to join the NATO-backed
uprising in 2011 which overthrew him.
Now they have again donned their militia uniforms and taken
up arms for what some are calling a second revolution.
With 50 other Amazigh, Falu two weeks ago seized control of
Libya's Mellitah port, which is operated by the state National
Oil Corp and Italy's ENI. They have also threatened to
close down gas supplies across the Mediterranean.
The Berber protest has added to the already difficult task
facing Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan as he attempts to
contain dozens of rival militias and former fighters who have
seized control over parts of the country including its eastern
"We can stop gas exports to Europe ...to pressure Italy and
the European Union to push (Libya's) General National Congress
(assembly) to recognise the Amazigh language," said Falu, an
army officer who once guarded Mellitah. "We are Muslims and
Libyans but the Arabs discriminate against us."
The Amazigh demands are broad. They want more rights and
want the central government and parliament - paralysed by
infighting - to guarantee their language and culture in Libya's
Their protest at Mellitah parallel the seizure of ports to
the east by another armed group demanding more regional
autonomy, a move that has slashed the OPEC country's oil
Oil sources say crude exports from Mellitah were halted
earlier this month though ENI has disputed the assertion that
all flows had been suspended.
Amazigh earlier this year briefly shut down the gas pipeline
At Mellitah, Berber protesters drive unchallenged through
the front gate of the large oil and gas complex located some 100
km (63 miles) west of the capital Tripoli. The guards salute
Two weeks ago, the militiamen arrived in coastguard boats
they seized during the 2011 revolt. After briefly boarding two
tankers loading oil, they hoisted banners and flags and put up
tents at the terminal - one on a rock outcrop in the harbour.
Four Italian tugboats that usually assist tankers to dock
are now moored alongside one of the protesters' boats armed with
a small cannon fastened to its bow.
The Amazigh protesters, a mix of youth, middle-aged or older
civil servants and soldiers from the nearby town of Zuwara and
other Amazigh communities, are settled in for a long protest.
"I came to join my fellow people," said Salim Wara, a
49-year old bank employee from Nalut in the Western mountains
some 100 km from the Mediterranean coast. "We had expected a
better life after Gaddafi but we still face discrimination."
Amazigh have organised themselves into military-like units,
sleeping in quarters based on their former rebel units and
working in shifts. Off-duty protesters smoke water pipes and
drink tea in a cluster of staff portacabins and tents.
"I am ready to die for my rights," said 60-year old Jamal
Mansouri, sitting next to Amazigh flags flying over the port he
stormed almost two weeks ago. "We want to practise our language
and culture without any discrimination."
DEMANDS FROM 'FREE ONES'
Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh or "Free Ones",
inhabited North Africa for thousands of years before Arabs
brought Islam to the region in the seventh century.
They live not just in Libya but also in Morocco, Tunisia,
Morocco and Mauritania. Tensions with Arabs have led to violence
in the past.
Some of their demands are similar to people in other parts
of Libya who have seized oil ports and fields. These include
better security and more development from the country's enormous
Still, it is hard for Zeidan to deliver on such demands as
he struggles to assert control and rein in militias and
Islamists opposing him. The prime minister himself was briefly
kidnapped last month by one militia group employed by his
Amazigh leaders have boycotted a committee which is to draft
a new constitution unless their people get a greater say and
decisions on minority languages. Minorities have only six seats
in the 60-member assembly.
Some Arabs tend to look down on the Amazigh as an African
tribe or fear that granting them special minority rights will
fuel separatist aspirations. Gaddafi banned the teaching of
their language and culture.
And some more moderate Amazigh leaders acknowledge life has
improved some since the fall of Gaddafi who jailed Amazigh and
banned their language. People mainly spoke it at home but now
Berber political banners and shop advertisements are everywhere
in the town of Zuwara.
In 2011, the local council of Zuwara and other Berber
communities started teaching their language in primary schools,
hiring their own teachers from Morocco and Algeria. But despite
a promise of some state help next year, the Amazigh want more.
"Our main demand is that the language of the Amazigh and our
culture will be guaranteed in the constitution," Ghali Twini, a
member of the local council said.
Many Amazigh oppose the government, favouring a federal
system that devolves regional powers. Residents in Zuwara
sympathise with the port protesters but their mood is less
"We've tried so many things before, demonstrating, talking
to the government," said Yousra al-Hasairi, a veiled medical
laboratory student. "They didn't listen so we had to take this