(Reuters) – Armed protesters controlling ports in eastern Libya said on Saturday they had started independently exporting oil, bypassing the central government in a major escalation of their blockade to demand a share of the nation’s petroleum wealth.
The rebels, who have seized three major ports since August to demand more autonomy, warned Tripoli against staging an attack to halt the oil sale after a North Korean-flagged tanker docked at Es Sider.
A local television station controlled by protesters showed footage of pro-autonomy rebels holding a ceremony and slaughtering a camel to celebrate their first oil shipment.
In the distance, a tanker could be seen at what the station said was Es Sider port.
“We tried to reach a deal with the government, but they … were too busy with themselves and didn’t even discuss our demands,” Abb-Rabbo Albarassi, self-declared prime minister of Libya’s eastern autonomy movement, told the station.
“If anyone attacks, we will respond to that.”
The oil standoff is one part of deepening turmoil in the North African OPEC member, where the government is struggling to control militias who helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but kept their weapons and are challenging state authority.
Any independent shipment would be a blow to the government. Tripoli had said it would destroy tankers trying to buy oil from Ibrahim Jathran, a former anti-Gaddafi rebel who seized the port and two others with thousands of his men in August.
Jathran had commanded a brigade of former rebels paid by the state to protect petroleum facilities. He defected with his troops, however, to take over the ports.