TRIPOLI: The president of Libya’s highest political authority Wednesday called off plans to assault rebels blockading oil terminals, giving them two weeks to stand down voluntarily or again face military action.
General National Congress head Nouri Ali Abu Sahmein Monday ordered an assault on rebels demanding regional autonomy in the east, who began exporting oil this week in defiance of the central government.
But Sahmein said Wednesday that “we have decided to give an ultimatum of two weeks at the most” to lift the blockade.
He added that military action was being suspended for the moment.
But if the ultimatum is not respected, he said “the decision of the chief of the armed forces [Abu Sahmein himself] will be put into action by the Libyan army.”
The developments came as Islamists, buoyed by parliament’s ouster of liberal-backed Prime Minister Ali Zeidan Tuesday, moved to consolidate their newfound power.
The premier fled the country as the General National Congress approved an Islamist-sponsored no-confidence motion, stopping briefly in Malta before flying on to Germany, government sources in Valletta said.
The GNC named Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani caretaker premier for the two weeks it now has to agree on a permanent successor.
But as Zeidan complained while in office, real power over the armed forces lies not with the defense minister but with Abu Sahmein.
In the absence of a large enough regular army force to take on the heavily armed rebels, the advance guard of the task force is composed largely of militia loyal to the GNC.
Rebels of the Cyrenaica Defense Force withdrew to the eastern region’s historic border late Tuesday after Libya Shield Force militiamen pushed them out of the central coastal city of Sirte, a rebel commander told AFP.
He warned that the offensive by the fighters, mostly from Libya’s third city Misrata, risked plunging the country back into civil war.
The advancing force was “a tribal militia, not a regular army unit,” he said, asking not to be identified.
“Our forces have pulled back to Wadi Lahmar,” some 90 kilometers east of Sirte, he added.
The town lies on the historic border between Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica region, whose pre-1963 autonomy the rebels want restored.
The opposing forces were allies during the NATO-backed uprising of 2011 that ended the 42-year dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi, who made his last stand in Sirte.
But the Cyrenaicans’ weekend move to load oil onto a North Korean-flagged tanker in a deal not sanctioned by the state-run National Oil Corp. prompted the GNC chief to authorize military action.
The rebels had been blockading the main eastern oil export terminals since July, but loading the Morning Glory was a major escalation and triggered Zeidan’s ouster.
The threatened assault on export terminals – a key part of Libya’s oil infrastructure – helped push up world prices Tuesday.
The rebels’ prolonged blockade had already slashed oil exports from 1.5 million barrels per day to just 250,000 bpd. Heavy clashes in the region, already a major battleground in the 2011 uprising, could deal long-term damage to Libya’s output.
The eastern rebels are among the Islamists’ most potent rivals, but also face competition from former rebels from the Zintan region, southwest of Tripoli, who backed Zeidan right up to his ouster.
Just hours after the GNC vote, the Islamist-controlled Tripoli military council ordered the “withdrawal of all forces occupying strategic positions, particularly inside Tripoli international airport and on the airport road.”
That was a clear reference to the Zintan militia, which has been deployed at the airport since the 2011 uprising in which it played a major role in capturing Tripoli from Gadhafi’s forces.
Zeidan had warned that his removal was likely to trigger an Islamist power grab.
“I’m not hanging on for the sake of it but because I’m eager not to surrender the country to a certain party who threaten to lead it in a direction that does not serve the national interests,” he said Saturday.
Zeidan was denied even an honorable exit, with a prosecutor slapping a travel ban on him for suspected involvement in the embezzlement of public funds.