BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Armed groups in eastern Libya shut off half the North African country’s oil exports to press demands for more autonomy ahead of the first free national election on Saturday.
A helicopter carrying voting material made a forced landing near the eastern town of Benghazi on Friday after being struck by anti-aircraft fire in an attack which killed one person on board, local officials said.
The election for a temporary national assembly is Libya’s first free nationwide vote in over half a century and comes barely a year after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a NATO-backed uprising.
But a spate of attacks on election facilities in the east and calls for a vote boycott there show how regional loyalties suppressed under Gaddafi have come to the fore in a country where armed militias dominate under-resourced security forces.
“There is no security in this country,” Emad El-Sayih, deputy head of the High National Election Commission (HNEC), told Reuters. “The Interior Ministry and the army are incapable of protecting the elections. The (election) commission is in a state of depression.”
Shippers said half Libya’s oil exporting capacity had been shut down and production cut by about 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) because of protests by groups demanding greater autonomy in the east, home to the bulk of its reserves.
At least three major oil exporting terminals were closed the previous evening and by Friday the first delays to oil shipments were reported by oil traders waiting for cargoes to load.
Oil companies hoping to lift shipments of crude from the ports affected by the shutdown received a note from agents warning vessels would not be able to berth or load while the strike continued.
“The strikes will continue for 48 hours if the government does not respond positively to their requests,” the note said.
The new 200-strong assembly will elect a prime minister and cabinet and will be charged with preparing full parliamentary elections next year on the basis of a new constitution.
It was also due to have named the panel that will write that constitution but, in a concession to the easterners, the interim government abruptly announced on Thursday that the panel will be elected directly by Libyans in another election.
Easterners are angry that their region, one of three in Libya, has only been allotted 60 of the 200 seats in the new assembly compared to 102 in the west around the capital Tripoli - a formula the interim government says is based on their weighting within a national population of six million.
“There is no doubt there could be a civil war between us in the east and the west because we do not have an equal number of seats as the west,” said Hamed al-Hassi, head of the High Military Council of Cyrenaica, the name of the eastern region.
“The country will be in a state of paralysis because no one in the government is listening to us,” said Hassi, whose group of ex-rebels is charged with securing the east but has fallen out with the government over the representation dispute.
In the third attack this week on election facilities in the east, a helicopter carrying voting material was struck by anti-aircraft fire as it approached Benghazi, the town that was the launchpad for last year’s uprising.
“We were preparing to receive the voting material as it arrived on a helicopter from Tripoli but it was hit and one man died,” Ahmed Abdelmalik, an employee at the local branch of the election commission, told Reuters.
On Thursday, the main storage centre for election materials in the eastern town of Ajdabiya was badly damaged in a suspected arson attack and last weekend armed men stormed the local election office in Benghazi and destroyed equipment.
Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Janet Lawrence