The group, led by a former rebel who once battled leader Muammar
Gaddafi, seized three major eastern ports in summer to demand a
greater share of oil wealth and more regional autonomy, choking off
600,000 barrels per day of oil exports.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government in Tripoli has been trying to
reopen the ports as it faces a budget crunch that risks deepening
unrest in the OPEC producer. Oil exports, Libya's lifeline, have
more than halved since summer.
Deputies from the General National Congress (GNC) parliament and
tribal leaders have tried mediate to end the port seizures, but so
far government and federalists led by al-Ibrahim Jathran have
engaged only in a war of words.
But Abb-Rabbo al-Barassi, prime minister of the self-declared
eastern region government, told Reuters that Tripoli and his
federalist movement are closing the gap, and a deal to resolve the
standoff of oil ports could be weeks away.
"I see progress with the state, the government, the General National
Congress assembly," he said in an interview in the group's base in
Ajdabiya town. "I think it won't take longer than two weeks to reach
a deal, God willing. Maybe even less than that."
Oil markets have been skeptical of such announcements in the past as
militias and tribesmen wrangling for power in the post-Gaddafi era
reach deals which often fall apart. Talks with Jathran's group to
reopen the seized Ras Lanuf, Es-Sider and Zueitina ports failed at
the last minute in December.
But Barassi, a former army colonel, said Zeidan's and GNC head Nuri
Ali Abu Sahmain had noticeably softened their stance towards his
"We are optimistic. Even Mr Ali Zeidan's comments are not as sharp
as they used to be. Also Nuri Sahmain is also not so tough anymore
in his language," he said. "There's no threat of using force, but a
will to talk."
Barassi spoke in the reception room of his new home reachable only
along a pot-holed dirt track. A pro-Jathran television station
blared in the background as assistants and relatives served coffee
Dragging into its six-month, Libya's oil standoff has often appeared
like a war of attrition, with Zeidan and Jathran exchange warnings.
But Barassi also appeared to take a softer tone than previous
"We are not enemies. We don't deal with the government and the GNC
as enemies. We may have different views, on how to work...but we
haven't used force."
The federalists, who command thousands of former state oil security
guards, have made three demands to reopen the ports.
They include Tripoli investigating oil corruption and selling oil
under supervision of the three Libyan regions from pre-Gaddafi times — Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and southern
"The latest talk (from the government) is that there are no problems
with the first two demands," he said. Zeidan, who calls Jathran's
group illegal, has said it was willing to investigate oil
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Barassi said the third demand calling for oil sales to be shared
among the three regions based on a law from the pre-Gaddafi-era was
difficult for Zeidan because accepting would mean recognizing the
idea of a federal state.
Jathran and others in the east are campaigning for federal
structure, which was in place before Gaddafi came to power.
Officials in Tripoli fear this could lead to secession.
Barassi said his group was trying to address Zeidan's concerns over
the third demand.
"We are in dialogue with them and we can readjust it," he said. He
declined to elaborate, saying only that the group expected within
two days to receive a response from Tripoli to an adjusted proposal.
LITTLE TO DO
Barassi insisted that the group might try selling oil on its own
should talks fail but said it had decided for now not to sign
anything and wait for the outcome of the talks.
"We want to sell oil the right way," he said. "We talked to firms
who signed deals with the state before and we spoke with new ones to
"But we told them to wait until there is an agreement with the
government so there is a contract with the state in a complete way,"
he said, declining to give names.
He said some potential buyers were concerned about safe passage to
the seized ports. The Libyan navy earlier this month said it had
opened fire on a Malta-flagged tanker trying to reach es-Sider port
to load oil.
"Some firms are fearful," the federalist leader said.
Originally from the eastern town of Beida, Barassi runs the
self-declared government from a temporary base in Ajdabiya. But he
said there was little to do for his 23-strong cabinet including
ministers for industry, health and education.
"It's right that we don't have work. We wait for oil exports or a
budget," he said.
The group has also founded the Libya Oil and Gas Corp to sell oil
when it can. Barassi said the firm consisted of former staff from
state National Oil Corp (NOC) based in ports who are sympathetic to
federalists — a claim denied by Tripoli.
Based in nearby Brega, the federalist oil company appears less
impressive than the colorful letterheaded statements it recently
sent to oil markets suggesting it could offer tankers safe passage
to the ports.
"We've only appointed a director for the firm," he said.
(Editing by Patrick Markey and William Hardy)
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