In Libya's west, Berber anger spills into gasfields

Reuters

* Amazigh or Berber protesters demand more ethnic rights

* Want safeguards in Libya's planned constitution

* Protests control Mellitah port supplying gas to Italy

* Libya struggling to contain militias in eastern ports

By Ulf Laessing

MELLITAH PORT, Libya, Nov 8 (Reuters) - After seizing aLibyan port and halting oil exports, former army officer Adelal-Falu has set his sights on a more drastic protest to winrights for his ethnic Amazigh people - shutting off the gas tapwhich supplies Italy.

Long oppressed by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, theAmazigh minority, or Berbers, were quick to join the NATO-backeduprising in 2011 which overthrew him.

Now they have again donned their militia uniforms and takenup arms for what some are calling a second revolution.

With 50 other Amazigh, Falu two weeks ago seized control ofLibya's Mellitah port, which is operated by the state NationalOil Corp and Italy's ENI. They have also threatened toclose down gas supplies across the Mediterranean.

The Berber protest has added to the already difficult taskfacing Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan as he attempts tocontain dozens of rival militias and former fighters who haveseized control over parts of the country including its easternoil ports.

"We can stop gas exports to Europe ...to pressure Italy andthe European Union to push (Libya's) General National Congress(assembly) to recognise the Amazigh language," said Falu, anarmy officer who once guarded Mellitah. "We are Muslims andLibyans but the Arabs discriminate against us."

The Amazigh demands are broad. They want more rights andwant the central government and parliament - paralysed byinfighting - to guarantee their language and culture in Libya'splanned constitution.

Their protest at Mellitah parallel the seizure of ports tothe east by another armed group demanding more regionalautonomy, a move that has slashed the OPEC country's oilproduction.

Oil sources say crude exports from Mellitah were haltedearlier this month though ENI has disputed the assertion thatall flows had been suspended.

Amazigh earlier this year briefly shut down the gas pipelinesupplying Mellitah.

At Mellitah, Berber protesters drive unchallenged throughthe front gate of the large oil and gas complex located some 100km (63 miles) west of the capital Tripoli. The guards salutethem.

Two weeks ago, the militiamen arrived in coastguard boatsthey seized during the 2011 revolt. After briefly boarding twotankers loading oil, they hoisted banners and flags and put uptents at the terminal - one on a rock outcrop in the harbour.

Four Italian tugboats that usually assist tankers to dockare now moored alongside one of the protesters' boats armed witha small cannon fastened to its bow.

The Amazigh protesters, a mix of youth, middle-aged or oldercivil servants and soldiers from the nearby town of Zuwara andother Amazigh communities, are settled in for a long protest.

"I came to join my fellow people," said Salim Wara, a49-year old bank employee from Nalut in the Western mountainssome 100 km from the Mediterranean coast. "We had expected abetter life after Gaddafi but we still face discrimination."

Amazigh have organised themselves into military-like units,sleeping in quarters based on their former rebel units andworking in shifts. Off-duty protesters smoke water pipes anddrink tea in a cluster of staff portacabins and tents.

"I am ready to die for my rights," said 60-year old JamalMansouri, sitting next to Amazigh flags flying over the port hestormed almost two weeks ago. "We want to practise our languageand culture without any discrimination."

DEMANDS FROM 'FREE ONES'

Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh or "Free Ones",inhabited North Africa for thousands of years before Arabsbrought Islam to the region in the seventh century.

They live not just in Libya but also in Morocco, Tunisia,Morocco and Mauritania. Tensions with Arabs have led to violencein the past.

Some of their demands are similar to people in other partsof Libya who have seized oil ports and fields. These includebetter security and more development from the country's enormousoil wealth.

Still, it is hard for Zeidan to deliver on such demands ashe struggles to assert control and rein in militias andIslamists opposing him. The prime minister himself was brieflykidnapped last month by one militia group employed by hisgovernment.

Amazigh leaders have boycotted a committee which is to drafta new constitution unless their people get a greater say anddecisions on minority languages. Minorities have only six seatsin the 60-member assembly.

Some Arabs tend to look down on the Amazigh as an Africantribe or fear that granting them special minority rights willfuel separatist aspirations. Gaddafi banned the teaching oftheir language and culture.

And some more moderate Amazigh leaders acknowledge life hasimproved some since the fall of Gaddafi who jailed Amazigh andbanned their language. People mainly spoke it at home but nowBerber political banners and shop advertisements are everywherein the town of Zuwara.

In 2011, the local council of Zuwara and other Berbercommunities started teaching their language in primary schools,hiring their own teachers from Morocco and Algeria. But despitea promise of some state help next year, the Amazigh want more.

"Our main demand is that the language of the Amazigh and ourculture will be guaranteed in the constitution," Ghali Twini, amember of the local council said.

Many Amazigh oppose the government, favouring a federalsystem that devolves regional powers. Residents in Zuwarasympathise with the port protesters but their mood is lessbelligerent.

"We've tried so many things before, demonstrating, talkingto the government," said Yousra al-Hasairi, a veiled medicallaboratory student. "They didn't listen so we had to take thislast resort."

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