Tribal and political leaders in eastern Libya have called for semi-autonomy for the oil-rich region, raising fears that the country may fragment in the wake of Muammar Gadaffi’s downfall.
The announcement came at a meeting attended by about 3000 people near the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday. It called for a return to federalism in Libya and insisted that the region once known as Cyrenaica would administer itself but follow the national government in areas like foreign affairs and defense.
“The federation does not mean division, but organization,” Abdul Moniem Al-Obeidi, the organizer of the conference said today, according to Bloomberg. “Federation means fragmentation of the central government and not the nation.”
Supporters of the move say autonomy for the region, which stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border in the east and holds two-thirds of Libya’s oil reserves, will prevent it from being neglected as was the case for decades.
They claim they are simply reverting to an arrangement enshrined in the country’s 1951 constitution, which divided Libya into three states – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan – and allowed Cyrenaica a large degree of autonomy, according to the Agence France Presse.
But in Tripoli, senior officials — including interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil and interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib — fear a federal Libya would split the country, and are pushing instead for a program of decentralization, Al Jazeera reports.
More from GlobalPost: Libya's security depends on former rebels, for better or worse
Following their announcement outside Benghazi on Tuesday, local leaders said they had appointed Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya’s longest-serving political prisoner during Gadaffi’s rule and a member of the governing National Transitional Council in Tripoli, as leader of a governing council for the region.
According to the BBC, while the declaration has no force in law, it enjoys significant popular support among Benghazi residents.
The region’s push for semi-autonomy will fuel fears in the capital and elsewhere that conflict could erupt over control of Libya’s resources, and will also worry international oil companies operating in the country as it raises the possibility they may have to renegotiate their current contracts with a new entity, Reuters reports.
More from GlobalPost: Latin America's hidden growth story