Libyan PM flees country after tanker escapes rebel-held port

Ousted former Libyan PM Ali Zeidan

(Reuters) – Former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan sought refuge in Europe on Wednesday after parliament voted him out for failing to stop rebels independently exporting oil in a challenge to Libya’s fragile unity.

The crisis arose when protesters who have seized three eastern ports since August loaded crude onto a North Korean-flagged tanker at Es Sider terminal at the weekend.

The tanker left Es Sider on Tuesday. According to varying accounts by government officials, the navy or air force then fired on the vessel, although it was not clear if this happened in Libyan or international waters.

Government spokesman Habib al-Amin told a news conference in Tripoli that the firing failed to disable the tanker, which proceeded eastwards into Egyptian waters. He said Libya had asked Egypt and other countries to help stop the ship.

There was no independent confirmation of the tanker’s whereabouts, destination or ownership.

The debacle underlines the impotence of the authorities in Tripoli, whose fledgling army and police force are no match for the militias and other armed groups who remain a law unto themselves three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

After the tanker escaped, an infuriated parliament voted out Zeidan on Tuesday and named Defence Minister Abdallah al-Thinni as acting prime minister for two weeks.

Ibrahim Jathran, leader of the group holding the Es Sider port

Western powers, who supported the NATO campaign that came to the aid of anti-Gaddafi rebels, fear the OPEC member state could slide into greater instability or even break apart, with rival groups laying claim to power and vast oil reserves.

The protesters controlling ports in the east demand autonomy and a greater share of oil resources for their region, which they say was disadvantaged during Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

Officials said Libya was close to bankruptcy because of the six-month oil blockade, which cost the North African country an estimate $8 billion in lost revenue in 2013, and set a two-week deadline for talks with rebels to end the port seizures before force was used. Similar threats in the past have proved empty.

“We need an emergency budget for the government to carry out its tasks, and to deal with the country’s serious security challenges,” Thinni told reporters.

After flying out of Libya, Zeidan made a two-hour stopover in Malta before going to “another European country”, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told state-owned television TVM.