Benghazi declaration of new state threatens to split Libya

Tribal leaders and militia commanders have declared oil-rich eastern Libya a semi-autonomous state, a move opponents fear will be the first step towards dividing the country six months after the overthrow of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Thousands of tribal and militia representatives and local politicians made the declaration at a conference in Benghazi yesterday. But they claimed the move was not intended to split Libya, insisting they only wanted to end decades of discrimination against the east.

The conference said the eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own parliament, police, courts and capital – Benghazi, Libya’s second city – to run its own affairs. Under their plan, foreign policy, defence and oil resources would be left to a federal government in Tripoli in the west. Barqa would cover nearly half the country, from central Libya to the Egyptian border in the east and to the borders with Chad and Sudan in the south, the area covered by the province of Cyrenaica under King Idris.

Libya’s National Transitional Council based in Tripoli, has repeatedly voiced its opposition to an autonomous east, warning it could eventually lead to the break-up of the North African nation of six million people.

The head of the NTC last night condemned the move. Mustafa Abdel Jalil said: “I regret to say that [foreign] countries have financed this plot in the east. I call on my brothers, the Libyan people, to be alert to the conspiracies being plotted against them and to be aware that some people are dragging the country back down into a deep pit’.


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The declaration underscored the weakness of the NTC, which has been unable to establish its authority since Gaddafi was killed in October. The Benghazi conference of around 3,000 delegates also illustrated one of the key weaknesses in post-Gaddafi Libya – the lack of political institutions. Over 42 years in power, Gaddafi stripped Libya of credible representative bodies. Since his fall, towns, cities, tribes and militias across Libya have taken matters into their own hands.

The Benghazi conference had no official status. The impact it has depends on how much influence its participants can wield. So far other regions have not made any moves to create their own states or call for a federal system.

Easterners say the step will end the marginalisation suffered under Gaddafi. The former dictator built his powerbase in the west, at the expense of a hostile east. At the conference, delegates raised the old Barqa state flag – black with a crescent and a star. The gathering appointed Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya’s longest serving political prisoner under Gaddafi, as leader of a planned governing council for Barqa state. Al-Zubair, a descendant of the former King Idris whom Gaddafi deposed in 1969, is also a member of the National Transitional Council.

Al-Zubair pledged to protect Braqa but also said it would recognise the NTC in the international arena. “Residents of Barqa, we are brothers. We protect each other,” he told the gathering. “Libya will not be divided. It is one nation.”