March 5, 2012 / 5:05 PM / 6 years ago

In eastern Libya, a push for more autonomy from Tripoli

* Civic leaders to hold congress to propose federal state

* Eastern Libyans complain of neglect by Tripoli rulers

* Libya’s east is home to biggest oil fields

By Christian Lowe and Ali Shuaib

TRIPOLI, March 5 (Reuters) - Civic leaders from Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica province will on Tuesday launch a push for regional autonomy, posing a new challenge to the country’s fragile cohesion after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Five thousand people are due to attend an inaugural “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica” near the eastern city of Benghazi where they will set out a proposal for Libya to be transformed into a federal state, one of the organisers said.

“We would like in Cyrenaica to take care of housing, education and other things and would delegate national security, defence ... to the central government,” said Mohammed Buisier, a Libyan-American who is helping organise the congress.

“We believe in one Libya,” he told Reuters by telephone from Benghazi, cradle of the revolution against Gaddafi last year.

“People in Cyrenaica have for 40 years suffered from negligence ... If we keep this negligence towards the east, I cannot guarantee that Libya will be united in 25 years time.”

Any moves for greater autonomy for eastern Libya could unsettle the central government, and foreign oil firms, because the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves are in Cyrenaica and its biggest state oil company is based in Benghazi.

It was not clear though how many of eastern Libya’s tribal leaders, militia chiefs or local officials - who wield the real power in the region - support the initiative.

For about 10 years after it became an independent state in 1951, Libya was run along federal lines, with power devolved to Cyrenaica, the southern province of Fezzan, and Tripolitania in the west of the country.

Libya centralised its government in the last years of the rule of King Idris, and Gaddafi accelerated the process when he came to power in a military coup in 1969.

Since Gaddafi’s 42-year rule ended, calls for federal rule have become more vocal. They have been fuelled by long-standing complaints in the east that it has not been given a fair share of Libya’s wealth, and by the weakness of the central government which took over after Gaddafi’s overthrow.

In a move that may have been timed to pre-empt the Benghazi congress, Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib is to make a televised address later on Monday to outline plans for increasing the powers of local government, his office said.

“PEACEFUL” CAMPAIGN

The organiser of the Cyrenaica congress said there were no plans to unilaterally declare autonomy from the rest of Libya. He said delegates would be “putting on the table” their proposal, and would use peaceful means to press their case.

The idea of more autonomy could tap into discontent in Benghazi about the shortcomings of National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim leadership.

NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who is himself from the east, in January had to seek refuge from bottle-throwing protesters who stormed the council’s Benghazi offices.

Buisier said the first steps would be to create a 300-member “High Council for Cyrenaica” and to lobby for Cyrenaica to be given more representation in an election, scheduled for June, to choose a new national assembly.

Asked if the province would take unilateral action if the central government blocked its plan for a federal state, he said: “I do not want to visit this. We will see.”

The revolt against Gaddafi’s rule began in Benghazi on Feb. 17 last year, when government troops fired on residents protesting against poverty, official neglect and repression. Until the revolt reached Tripoli, Benghazi was the headquarters of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.

The proposal to give Cyrenaica autonomy is viewed with unease by many people in Tripoli, who believe it risks leading to the break-up of Libya.

“Unity is a red line and it is not up for discussion,” said Abbas al-Gadi, deputy head of the Libyan National Party, which will compete in the June election.

“Libya is weak now so this is a guaranteed chance for people who are trying to enforce federalism,” said Hussein Al-Alem, another official in the same party. “The idea of splitting Libya, I do not think any Libyan will support this,” he said.

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