TRIPOLI, Libya – The leaders of a movement for self-rule in oil-rich eastern Libya unilaterally announced Thursday the formation of a shadow government, the latest challenge to the weakened central authority.
The announcement came several months after the movement, backed by some militias and local tribes, declared the eastern half of Libya to be an autonomous state, named Barqa, claiming broad self-rule powers and control over resources.
The central government in Tripoli had rejected the declaration.
Advocates of the self-rule in the east, who long have complained about discrimination by the government in the capital Tripoli, have been pushing for reviving the system maintained under King Idris in 1951. Libya then was divided into three states, with Cyrenaica – or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic – encompassing the eastern half of the country.
Opponents fear a declaration of autonomy could be the first step toward the outright division of the country, particularly with the turmoil that struck in the aftermath of the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The tension between the central government and eastern militias and tribal leaders has already disrupted the exports of oil. Eastern militias earlier seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to around 600,000, robbing the country of its main revenue source.
Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, the head of the newly declared Barqa government, said the aim is to improve distribution of resources and undermine the hold of the centralized system that has discriminated against their region.
“The aim of the regional government is to share resources in a better fashion, and to end the centralized system adopted by the authorities in Tripoli,” al-Barassi said at a news conference in the northeastern town of Ajdabiya.
He dismissed accusations that the movement’s leaders are only seeking to take control of the region’s oil resources. “We only want Barqa’s share according to the 1951 constitution,” he said.
The new government is made up of 24 posts, which don’t include the defense or foreign affairs portfolios, he said. Al-Barassi said the region will encompass four provinces, including Benghazi, Tobruk, Ajdabiya and Jebel Akhdar.
It is not clear how much support the new autonomous government will have in the country’s east, though the movement’s leaders have seized control of important resources. Officials in the central government have threatened to use military action against any illegal or unauthorized shipment of oil.