Tribal leaders and militia commanders in oil-rich eastern Libya have declared their intention to seek semi-autonomy, raising fears that the country might disintegrate following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Thousands of representatives of major tribal leaders, militia commanders and politicians made the declaration on Tuesday in a ceremony held in Benghazi.
They promised to end decades of marginalisation under Gaddafi and named a council to run the affairs of the newly created region, Cyrenaica, extending from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border in the east.
Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston, reporting from the capital, Tripoli, said the announcement in Benghazi was only the beginning of a process.
“It is certainly significant, but we need to put it into context: first of all, they have announced the formation of a new regional council, and this will actually take a couple weeks to form,” she said.
“At this stage, they say they would like independence, but they have not declared independence. At this stage they haven’t even declared a degree of semi autonomy.”
The gathering in Benghazi also rejected an election law which allocated 60 seats for the eastern region out of 200-member assembly set to be elected in June.
Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim central government based in Tripoli, has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of a partly autonomous eastern region, saying it could eventually lead to the break-up of the country.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the NTC, called Tuesday’s declaration “the beginning of a conspiracy against Libyans” and said it would “lead to danger” of eventually breaking up the nation.
“Some Arab nations, unfortunately, have supported and encouraged this to happen,” he said, without naming any specific countries.
“These nations are funding this kind of unacceptable strife.”
Earlier, Waheed Burshan, a senior NTC representative, said the tribal leaders were looking for political power, whereas ordinary people of the east wanted a unified Libya.
“Well obviously, all Libyans have the right to express their opinion. But the fact is, for Libyans to consider such a split in the country and its governance, I think it is clearly not advisable. The Libyan people will not stand for it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“[For] majority of people looking for a unified Libya, the thought of having separate autonomous region it’s definitely not acceptable. I think people will react swiftly on this type of decisions. I think people are discussing the idea of demonstrating for several days to make sure such a thing does not happen.”
The Benghazi gathering appointed Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya’s longest serving political prisoner under Gaddafi, as leader of its governing council.
Al-Zubair, who is also a member of the NTC, pledged to protect the rights of the region, but also said his council recognisedNTC to run Libya’s international affairs.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid, who recently returned from eastern Libya, said the move by the region’s tribal leaders and militia commanders will intensify ongoing rivalries.
“People were saying, that according to the 1951 constitution which is now valid in Libya, there are two capitals: Tripoli as a political capital, and Benghazi as the economic capital. They want that status back,” she said.
“They also say we are so far away from Tripoli, a 12 hour drive really- and everything is centralised in Tripoli. For any kind of administrative papers, they have to go all the way and back.”