In Libya's east, a former rebel commander tests Tripoli

Reuters

By Ulf Laessing and Ghaith Shennib

BREGA, Libya, Oct 27 (Reuters) - For Libyan militia leaderIbrahim al-Jathran, shutting down half the country's oilproduction with an armed militia is not a crime, it is the startof a just battle for a fair share of the country's petroleumwealth.

From his base near the Mediterranean oil terminal of Brega,the 33-year-old war hero from the uprising against MuammarGaddafi has taken control of the main oil ports to demand moreautonomy and oil for his eastern region from faraway Tripoli.

He commands several thousand fighters from his whitesingle-storey building, the former headquarters of Libya'spetroleum protection force, which he seized with his men when hedefected from the unit in July.

His air-conditioned office is crammed with aides and his menpatrol the large compound. A Toyota pickup truck mounted withanti-aircraft guns is parked at the front gate. His militia alsomans the gates at Brega and other ports along the coast.

The rise of Jathran as a self-styled regional leaderreflects the anarchy of postwar Libya, where Prime Minister AliZeidan is struggling to control a country bristling with armedtribes, militias and radical Islamists.

But the standoff over the oil ports shows the limited powerthe central government has to curb former fighters who chasedout Gaddafi and now believe they deserve to be the beneficiariesof the uprising two years ago.

"Oil exports are supposed to benefit the Libyan people butthe opposite is true," Jathran said in an interview inAjdabiyah, his home town near the Mediterranean coast.

Roads here are potholed, hospitals scarce and the paint ispeeling off buildings, in contrast to the elegant corniche inthe capital Tripoli, 700 km (400 miles) to the west.

"Libyans had the dream of a new country after the revolutionbut security, health and education services are deterioratingday by day," Jathran said.

After blocking oil sales worth at least $5 billion, Jathranis threatening to escalate his confrontation with the governmentby trying to sell crude directly to the market, bypassing whathe calls the corrupt oil ministry.

Like many in the underdeveloped east, he wants to split thecountry into three self-governing parts along tribal lines goingback to the time before independence in 1951. Libya was thendivided into the eastern Cyrenaica region, a western part withTripoli as its capital, and Fezzan in the south.

To make this plan work, Jathran needs oil. Some 60 percentof Libya's crude reserves are in the east but Jathran says therevenues go only to Tripoli.

Most experts believe it will be difficult for Jathran andhis rebels to find buyers for oil that belongs to thegovernment, which says it will bomb any tankers trying to dockat the seized ports.

The standoff is not only disrupting world oil supplies. Itrisks further destabilising the vast desert nation, whichWestern powers fear is already becoming a haven for Islamistmilitants roaming across the region's porous borders.

The challenges facing Libya were apparent earlier this monthwhen gunmen from another militia briefly abducted Zeidan fromhis hotel room in Tripoli, only to release the prime ministerunharmed hours later.

RISE OF A REBEL

Jathran's ascent as a federalist rebel parallels Libya'sdescent into militia chaos.

An acclaimed rebel fighter, Jathran was rewarded after theuprising against Gaddafi with the command of the PetroleumSecurity Guards in charge of protecting ports and oilfields, places he had taken from Gaddafi's troops in the east.

Then bearded and dressed in military uniform - these days heis clean shaven and wears a black designer suit and tie -Jathran commanded the "Hamza" brigade, which fought along thecoast from Ajdabiyah to the Sirte area, Gaddafi's homeland.

Jathran's family were initially given weapons and money fromthe Gaddafi government, which hoped he would help put down theinsurgency. But instead his men joined the rebels, a formerfellow fighter told Reuters.

Angry, like many ordinary Libyans, at Tripoli's failure toprovide development and security, Jathran decided in the summerto become a rebel again and left the oil guards. His men seizedthe Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil ports.

Still operating from the same office in the old oil guardheadquarters, Jathran has placed himself at the head of anautonomy movement in Cyrenaica.

Supported by male secretaries, some in the uniform of thepetroleum guards, Jathran now calls himself the leader of aregional body to govern Libya's east.

Visitors stream in, forcing aides to lock his office to keepthem out and give him privacy. Inside, he issues orders over thephone or signs papers, while watching a news conference of arebel boasting about Zeidan's brief abduction.

While the prime minister has ended port blockades in Libya'smore developed west by paying off militias, Jathran isresisting. He is insisting on a federalist power-sharing system.

"We need to reinstate the constitution from 1951 which callsfor a federal system. Now we have a government in Tripoli whichis not only a centralized one but also controlled by the MuslimBrotherhood and its armed militias," he said.

"There won't be any stability without a federal system."

Such demands are popular in Cyrenaica, long a neglectedanti-Gaddafi bastion and the cradle of the uprising against him.

Jathran is popular because he paid for his opposition to Gaddafi, spending seven years in the notorious Abu Salim jailbefore being released in 2010 in an amnesty for politicalprisoners.

Residents complain Benghazi still looks as desolate as itdid in the Gaddafi days. Buildings on the seafront, mainlydating from the Italian colonial era, are dilapidated.

Many locals agree with Jathran when he accuses corruptelites in Tripoli of "stealing oil" by taking advantage of theinefficient measuring systems used to track crude at the oilterminals.

"We cannot sit and watch how people from the old regimesteal our oil," said Faraj al-Maghrebi, an engineer atstate-owned Sirte Oil Company, which has operations nearAjdabiyah.

Jathran said government officials offered him money to endhis action. His office provided Reuters with copies of chequeshe says were issued for him by a powerful lawmaker in Tripoli.The deputy concerned says he merely made a gesture of goodwill.

RIVALRIES

Jathran's is just one of dozens of militias in Libya whichenjoy near-impunity, though many nominally have been integratedinto the interior or defence ministries. In practise they reportto their local commanders, not to the state.

His federalist call may be popular, but his influence islimited. While Jathran commands thousands of men - his spokesmansays 20,000 though analysts say this is too high - his authorityis limited to the Adjdabiyah area, home to his Magherba tribe.

He is also facing opposition from Islamists, whom he accusesof trying to turn Libya into a hotbed of militants like Iraq.

Islamist leaders in Benghazi dismiss him as a localchieftain who is damaging the economy and seeking only tostrengthen his tribe.

"We don't have a problem with federalism," said Ahmedal-Zlietny, the spokesman for a Benghazi-based Islamist grouplobbying for the introduction of Islamic law. "But this is justabout tribal power, which is a problem."

But Jathran is determined. He says he plans to startoffering crude oil to international markets this month on behalfof a new autonomy council.

"We are entitled to a share of the oil," he said.

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